Surveillance changes the “Psyche of the Community”

When we debate surveillance (whether its CCTV or snooping on our e-mails) the debate is usually framed as a trade off between civil liberties and security.  Its the right to privacy versus the right to be protected from crime.  Often, civil libertarians seek to win the argument by highlighting how the State can be tyrannical, oppressive, corrupt… or unworthy of trust.  Our governments are compared literary dystopias like Airstrip One in Nineteen Eighty-Four or to real-life dictatorships like North Korea.  These arguments are persuasive to some.

But as I have discussed previously, this approach does not persuade everyone.  And by deploying these arguments, civil liberties campaigners actually leave themselves exposed.  What if you do not believe that (say) the UK is as bad as North Korea?  What if you think that, on balance, Teresa May, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe and Robert Hannigan are actually on our side and not out to seize tyrannical control of the people?  All this chat about nefarious government agents acting like the Stasi will simply not persuade. 

When we talk about surveillance, we need to talk about The Observer Effect.  In physics, this is the concept that says that by measuring something, you change it.  And  we’re talking about surveillance, The Observer Effect means that simply by watching someone, you change their behaviour. Continue reading “Surveillance changes the “Psyche of the Community””

OwnCloud, an open source alternative to DropBox

My previous two posts were about the angst of privileged middle classes. I wrote first about the middle class habit of moving into the catchment area for good schools. Then I excused our tendency to maintain a less-than ethical existence. Untrained eyes could be forgiven for mistaking my motives in writing these posts. Am I not simply trying to assuage my own guilt at doing precisely those things?

Not so. I feel far less guilty about my complicity in all those middle-class clichés than perhaps I should. Rather, both posts were digressions of this one, in which I shall briefly discuss the ethics of Internet apps.

Continue reading “OwnCloud, an open source alternative to DropBox”

Is parental snooping the alternative to censorship?

How should a parents keep tabs on their kids?

On the technology site GigaOM, Matthew Ingram has posted two of a series of three articles about his “experiences of snooping on my kids and their online behaviour over a period of years.” He installed a ‘keylogger’ on his daughter’s computer everything she typed was e-mailed to him. When he confessed this to friends, they were shocked.

Is such parental behaviour justified? Children have fewer civil rights than adults (they cannot get married or vote) and its unreasonable to expect that they enjoy the same level of privacy as an adult – Parents should be aware of their medical conditions, for example. However, the transition from childhood, to the place where you take responsibility for yourself, is long and grey (see a previous post where I recommended aligning the age of religion with the age of consent).

When teenagers are concerned, NSA-style eavesdropping feels creepy. I think having secrets is part of what makes us a rounded and mature human being, and accepting that there are things that you do not know about your child is part of the parental process of ‘letting go’. However, much of their discourse takes place in public and semi-public social media spaces. It is less creepy to register an account and ‘follow’ a tween’s online discussions. I think that even doing so under an alias would be acceptable. What better illustration of the pitfalls in online discourse can there be, than discovering that the kid with the cat avatar you’ve been discussing Zac Efron with, was actually Your Mum?! Continue reading “Is parental snooping the alternative to censorship?”

Notes on PRISM, privacy and surveillance

I have been away this week and unable to write anything on the PRISM revelations that have dominated the news over the past few days.  Here are a few notes and links in lieu of something more rounded.

At ORGcon, I did preface my remarks during the ‘free speech online in the UK’ panel to note that the right to free speech includes the right not to be surveilled.  If you think your conversations are being monitored, then you are not going to speak as freely as you may wish.  (I will post a longer reflection on the ORGcon discussion soon).

This week I did read an article by Daniel Solove in the Chronicle of Higher Education which summarises variations on the “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” argument for surveillance. It’s obviously extremely relevant given recent revelations surrounding the US Government’s PRISM programme.

Solove’s article is a frustrating read, because the arguments against surveillance are, like many human rights issues, bound up in ‘slippery slope’ or ‘boiling frog’ concepts that tend not to resonate with ordinary people. Public interest (and outrage) at privacy invasions only occur when rare real-life examples manifest themselves, as when the damage has already been done (the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone being the prime example).  Liberally minded people who oppose surveillance and privacy intrusions on principle need more sound-bites to compete with “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”. Solove lists a few candidates – “Why do you have curtains, then?” is probably the best retort. Continue reading “Notes on PRISM, privacy and surveillance”