The recent revelations by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden have raised important questions surrounding the issues of Big Data and the right to privacy.
Edward Snowden is an ex-CIA employee who last week leaked details of US top-secret phone and internet surveillance to The Guardian newspaper. The leaks reveal that the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) uses a programme known as Prism to directly tap into the servers of leading internet firms to track online communication. It has also been alleged that UK surveillance agency GCHQ used the system to spy on British citizens, although on Monday (9 June 2013) William Hague reassured Parliament that all British agencies ‘practise and uphold UK law at all times’. Barack Obama has also reassured Americans that ‘nobody is listening to your telephone calls.’
Since the leaks were disclosed, a debate has emerged among commentators around the issues arising from the proliferation of data and data mining techniques and where the lines should be drawn. Some remain relatively relaxed by the news. ‘So far, I have never seen or felt any real-world consequences from this theoretical vulnerability,’ Gideon Rachmann wrote in the Financial Times (behind paywall).
Benedict Brogan posited in The Telegraph that we have already reached a point of no return: ‘There is far more information about us out there than governments, let alone spy agencies, know what to do with. In the age of Big Data, we provide it willingly every time we swipe our travel pass or click to agree a website’s terms without bothering to read them.’ A Washington Post opinion poll conducted after the leaks were published suggest that the majority of Americans think government monitoring of phone records is acceptable if the aim is to combat terrorism.
However, others have voiced dismay. Hugo Rifkind in The Times called the revelations ‘sinister’, and that sweeping powers of surveillance ‘are only justifiable if they are granted with transparency […] subject to a system of checks and balances in which everybody can have faith.’ Ai Weiwei in The Guardian called it ‘abusively using government powers to interfere in individuals’ privacy.’
Hetan Shah, executive director of the RSS said: ‘This incident shows that the ubiquity of data is now putting strain on established norms and laws around privacy. Government and regulators need to get on the front foot to frame a regulatory regime for data that both protects individuals and promotes the public good. This will take a major public conversation, as nobody yet knows what this looks like.’