Sunday, 7 December 2014

Privacy - a privilege we have given away

You value your privacy, right? Of course you do. It’s a basic human right, isn’t it?
Well, no, not really. In fact, like carpets on the floor, indoor plumbing and private motor vehicles, it’s a privilege that has only in fairly recent times been extended beyond the rich. And even then – like all those things – not everywhere.
Put yourself a few generations back in your own family – say 150 years. Carpet? Probably not. Indoor loo? Likely not. Car? Definitely not. Privacy? Probably not much.
Not that the state would have been much interested in prying on you. Big business didn’t yet have the reach.
But the working class – which was most people – mostly lived in much more crowded conditions than we expect now. There’s not much privacy if you live six, or eight, or 12 to a room.
Or if you all have to share an outdoor netty with a dozen other families.
And what was true in Victorian England is still more or less true in various ways in many parts of the world.
So no, privacy isn’t a right. That sign saying “private”, whether it’s on a door, the gateway to a country estate, or a company portfolio, is a sign of privilege.
And unlike the companies and the estates, it’s a privilege most people seem strangely happy to give up.
You use Facebook? Google? Twitter? Snapchat? Satnav? You think CCTV in public places is a good thing? You’re happy to let the government award itself ever greater powers to listen to your conversations, read your emails, track your movements? You really have given up on privacy, haven’t you?
There’s an old idea, still used to justify police and government intrusion, that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.
That rather depends, though, on how much you trust the police, and the government. And the police and government we might have a little further down the line.
I wrote last week about the Internet of Things, and I promised to discuss here what happens when the data it depends on falls into the hands of hackers.
And that is a “when”, not an “if”. It’s inevitable.
Your PC is your window to the world – and it can be seen through both ways. And as I outlined last week, it’s only the beginning.
Last winter, cybercriminals broke into more than 100,000 internet-enabled appliances, such as fridges and heating systems, and sent out 750,000 spam e-mails to their users.
These days we have “intelligent” cars. But not that intelligent. Security researchers – “good guy” hackers, if you like – say they have built a device that can remotely control a car’s steering, brakes, acceleration, locks and lights. Let’s hope the good guys keep that to themselves.
In the recent words of one Ford executive, a car is now “a cognitive device”. If you drive a computer on wheels, you can expect someone to hack it.
And of course it doesn’t stop there. Between its various arms, the government now holds an awful lot of information about you, and has the capacity to hold a lot more. Which you may or may not be happy about.
So what if the government system itself is hacked? The authorities haven’t always shown themselves to be the brightest and safest keepers of digital data.
And there’s rather more than everyone’s personal privacy at stake.
In the words of Matthew Wald of the New York Times: “If an adversary lands a knockout blow to the energy grid it could black out vast areas of the continent for weeks, interrupt supplies of water, gasoline, diesel fuel and fresh food, shut down communications, and create disruptions of a scale that was only hinted at by Hurricane Sandy and the attacks of September 11.”
Eggs. Basket.


Do online petitions work? There is evidence that those run by big groups such as 38 Degrees, Avaaz and Sum Of Us may actually have some impact on politicians and other decision-makers.
So, as easy and trivial as it seems, I do occasionally put my name to campaigns I support – and I’ve just signed another one.
It calls for the East Coast main line to remain in public hands, not given away like the rest of the rail network to private business.
Never mind re-privatising the country’s best-run line, what we should be doing is putting the rails and the trains back under the same management. By bringing back British Rail.
And talking of keeping things public, a £2billion increase in the NHS budget sounds like a good thing. But it does rather depend on who the money ends up going to.
Back-door privatisation has already put £2.6bn of NHS money into profit-driven firms since April last year. Research by the NHS Support Federation suggests that figure could rise to £9.2bn.
Among those who could profit is the American company Lockheed Martin. The “defence” giant is said to be considering bidding for a £1bn contract to supply GP support.

Do we really want a maker and seller of warplanes to be running – and profiting from – our health service?

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