Welcome to 1984 - how much data do governments need?

While likening the current political climate to George Orwell’s 1984 may be considered extreme, current conversations in various parliaments are squeezing the concept of privacy more than ever.

Jamie Davies

December 5, 2016

4 Min Read
Welcome to 1984 - how much data do governments need?

While likening the current political climate to George Orwell’s 1984 may be considered extreme, current conversations in various parliaments are squeezing the concept of privacy more than ever.

One of the main themes of 1984 is surveillance and the reduction in privacy within the generation population. Apartments are equipped with two-way screens, so that they may be watched or listened to at any time, which is the same in the workplace. Central figures in government gain almost unlimited control and insight into the lives of the everyday.

Your correspondent is not suggesting the government is looking in on everything we do every moment of our lives, but new laws are offering unprecedented access into our lives, and with it, unparalleled opportunity for abuse.

At the time of writing, the Canadian government is debating a bill which will potentially give intelligence agencies greater insight into the lives of its citizens than the vast-majority of western societies. The Information & Ethics Committee is currently looking at how relevant the Privacy Act is for the 21st century. This should not be considered unusual; it was after all written in 1983, a lot has changed since then. But what should be assessed more closely is what the politicians and intelligence agencies are trying to achieve.

According to Tom’s Hardware, ideas floating around the parliament currently include expanding surveillance powers by requiring decryption capabilities for all services, mandatory storage of both internet and phone records for service providers, backdoors that allow interception, and warrantless access to basic subscriber information.

From a decryption perspective, if successful companies would have to forego using end-to-end encryption, users would not be able to encrypt data with their own tools, or would have to install a back-door into the software so intelligence agencies can gain entry when required. Software backdoors are in theory a good idea; you can still encrypt, but there has to be entry if required. The only problem is that if you have to have a backdoor, smart and nefarious individuals will try to find a way in, and they will probably succeed.

End-to-end encryption is safe and offers a sense of reliability to anyone using the service. Discussions on how encryption can be reduced or navigated around are dangerous. These discussions make the world less secure. At a time where data is becoming the new currency, surely anything which makes data safer is a more sensible option; why are governments discussing limits?

In all fairness, the Canadian’s aren’t the only ones discussing how to negate the effectiveness (and basic purpose) of encryption. The French and German government met a couple of months ago to discuss the same idea and the American’s tried to introduce a similar but got kicked back after some stiff opposition from the technology industry. And it’s not just encryption which is turning out to be a point of interest.

The UK has just introduced the Snooper’s Charter into law which gives British intelligence agencies unique access to personal information, and including bulk equipment interference. This essentially allows intelligence agencies to cast a large net over a specific location to collect data from a large number of devices, irrelevant of who falls into the net. Data will be collected from innocent citizens.

Over in the US, higher-ups have taken the concept of privacy to a new level, passing laws without consulting elected representatives of US citizens in congress. The Supreme Court has now passed into law new rules which will vastly increase the influence of US intelligence agencies not only in the states, but also abroad. And all this without public consultation.

Numerous people will comment that in terms of safety, the government will be required to access said information. The world can be a dangerous place, and arguably more damage can now be done from a keyboard than face-to-face. The digital evolution has not only impacted the way we bank, or shop or build relationships, but it has also changed the face of crime.

Yes, the government will be required to access certain information, however there is also a need for accountability. Certain aspects of new privacy laws are seemingly leaving too much room for interpretation. That’s in Canada, in the US, in the UK and numerous other countries. Writing a blank cheque to intelligence agencies is asking for trouble and a route to abuse. At some point the question of how much privacy are we willing to give up for the sake of security must be asked.

So how do you stop the world of technology and surveillance entering the realms of Nineteen Eighty-Four? Accountability and justification needs to be granted, controlled and measured. And how do you measure accountability and justification for access to personal information of citizens (who are innocent until proven guilty)? Smarter people than me will have to figure that one out, but until they have, the journey of surveillance will be a dangerous one.

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