Big Brother Is Watching Us All

Big Brother may already be watching us all.

Well, thank goodness, that horrible curse that has swept unchecked across UK television screens, mobile phone networks and gossip columns, has finally finished.

Yes, I mean Big Brother, the now famous show where a television company selects a dozen idiots from the thousands of idiots that send in videotapes in a vain attempt to humiliate themselves internationally for 10 seconds of fame, throws them all in a house together and sits back to see if they’ll murder each other. Sadly, they don’t. In fact, so far as I could tell, they sleep. And sleep. And sleep some more.

It still amazes me that anyone would want to peer into our dull little lives. We don’t do anything very interesting, or at least I don’t anyway. And yet it’s no secret that people in the IT world, and many more that aren’t, worry about privacy an awful lot.

I remember a conversation with the IT manager at a company I used to work for about 5 years ago, in which we discussed a survey he’d picked up from an IT publication. Though I can’t remember the exact figures quoted, when asked what they feared most about the IT industry at the time, around 80% of IT managers said “Microsoft”. Why? Because Microsoft controls a huge chunk of the world’s information. And that’s a powerful position to be in.

For those of you now rolling your eyes, fear not. This isn’t another anti-Microsoft rant. This is more about the inevitability of the loss of privacy through technology.

Why Are People so Interested in Us?

People have always craved information. “Knowledge is power” is a very old adage, and, to rather state the obvious, it still rings true. In fact it’s probably truer now than it’s ever been, in this, a time when we no longer bash each other with sticks to settle an argument (unless we’re of a certain fraternity of soccer fans).

Oh no, we’ve found better ways to get at each other. Legal disputes. The media. Cameras (if you don’t think a camera’s ever been used in anger, you’ve never seen those Websites where jilted lovers can post photographs of their rather unfortunate past tormentors).

Make no mistake: information is the corporate weapon of choice, and the corporations are the new governments. But, interesting as that is, how does it affect Joe Public, or your average “Internet professional”?

The Paradox of Responsibility in Government

In the mid to late ’80s, governments around the world started to get nervous about data protection. For example, in 1984 the UK government passed the Data Protection Act for the first time. The details are unimportant, but the sentiment is significant. This act was a direct response to the way Information Technology had suddenly made it far easier to store, access and search information in a frighteningly efficient manner. What kind of information? Any kind, including information about people.

It was obvious that there were serious human rights issues involved. All of a sudden, a bunch of suited people, who still thought that a cookie was made by Aunt Sue and a browser was someone who spent a lot of time in bookshops, were waving bits of paper in the houses of parliament and shouting about civil liberty.

As a result, a very comprehensive set of laws governing how companies were to gather, store and use personal data was devised. It was an inconvenience to systems administrators all over the country, but I guess it wasn’t a bad idea, all in all.

In 1998, those laws were pulled further in line with European law, and began to address issues surrounding the use of cookies, user tracking, ad ware, etc. Again, the laws were a nuisance (this time for Web developers and online advertisers), but at least they had a reasonably noble, if slightly misguided at times, outlook on things.

Western governments started working to ensure that personal data was protected on the Internet, not to mention in the vast corporate data bins. The various governments were squaring up to big business and protecting the little people… until something happened that rocked western society to its very foundations: the events of September 11th, 2001.

The post-9/11 political climate has seen the inception of sweeping new “anti-terrorism” powers for many western governments, and most of these powers focus on control of information. For instance, many governments now have the right to read previously private correspondence and demand Internet usage data from Internet Service Providers.

Prior to these changes, the authorities (in the UK at least) could demand information on a named individual backed up by a court order or a warrant. With the new, though in some cases, still only proposed powers, many authorities can simply demand, say, the entire log of relayed mail from a server for the last 6 months, and trawl through it for anything suspicious. Quite a difference, wouldn’t you say?

It suddenly seemed that government was no longer in the least bit interested in personal privacy (or, for that matter, human rights). “If you’ve got nothing to hide, why should you care?” became the cry of the people in suits. Within months, a bizarre double standard was born — and not just in the treatment of data. The paradox spread across the board: national security was now at odds with the rights of the individual.

And the knock-on effect for our industry?
We store vast amounts of information about people, many of us without even considering it. Further still, much of the personal data that we do store, we consider to be insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

However, in many cases, it has the potential to be all too significant. This means the implications for us are potentially enormous.

In the UK there was talk of Internet Service Providers being ordered to keep up to 12 months’ worth of data (as reported here, at Silicon.com) — an enormous task! And what’s the point of having carefully constructed legal paragraphs about the collection of data when ultimately, your ISP has to keep everything anyway and could hand it over to the government in an instant if so ordered? It’s a contradiction in the law books that is yet to be addressed (see this article for more), and leaves us in a sort of no man’s land. While we cannot promise privacy, we must be seen to do so in the eyes of our customers and site users.

The Bottom Line…

I wish I could give you a bullet list of things to do and not to do, but I can’t. Given the current political climate in our respective areas of expertise, there are no answers. Only time will tell. All we can do really is try to comply with everything we can, and hope that we stay on the right side of the powers that be, both individually and as responsible parties in our respective workplaces. May common sense prevail.

Speaking of common sense, they are planning another series of Big Brother. I, for one, am buying a bug gun, a fishing boat, and 25 years’ supply of tinned beans.

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