British spies want to invade your privacy. European Commissioners want to protect it. That would seem to be the state of play, based on current headlines.
What is less discussed is where the boundaries of personal privacy should be set and who has the responsibility for policing them. Twenty-five years ago this was easy to define. You went into your house, shut the door and drew the curtains and anybody choosing to intrude was invading your privacy. Long lenses were used by paparazzi to cross those thresholds, of course. But interception of private communications - essentially phone calls and post - was only permitted under tightly controlled conditions and rarely happened outside of them. Even so, some individuals felt it was an invasion of their privacy when the government of the time decided to make the Electoral Register available to anybody who wanted it.
Registering to vote and being identifiable as a citizen are critical to a democracy, but a segment of the population still felt it was a step too far. Ten years ago, these clear boundaries started to get eroded with the explosion of use of email and mobile phones. Unsecure, unencrypted messages were bouncing around, sitting on servers, being overheard or read over shoulders. As we now know, it was a golden age for tabloid newspapers who discovered a simple trick to listen into voicemail (and more corrupt tricks to get hold of mobile phone numbers in the first place).
As the Internet and mobile increasingly penetrated consumers’ lives, the boundaries of what is private and what public have blurred. Social networks have made the concept of any boundary at all arguably irrelevant, especially given the willingness of many users to tell the whole world everything about themselves. Yet the concept of privacy still persists in most people’s minds and is enshrined as a human right in European law. What we do not have is a clear definition of what it means to be private and when that right can be exercised or needs to be protected. At home, behind closed doors remains private. But if you are using an open wi-fi connection, any passer-by might be able to gain access to your communications. Does the burden of protecting your privacy rest with yourself, by adjusting security settings?
Or is it down to better policing and enforcement to ensure anybody “overhearing” in this way gets punished? When it comes to policing and national security, the boundaries have become even more challenged. A tipping point was clearly the use of instant messaging during last year’s riots to allegedly incite and organise events. Now those services are demanding real-time access to prevent criminality.
Nobody would argue against legitimate policing and enforcement. But once the door is opened to such access, it becomes harder to control who steps through it. We have learned that the hard way with the tabloid phone hacking scandal. Now we need to ensure privacy does not get lost in the push to give those services the crime-fighting tools they need.