Big Brother has never had it so good. Why? Technology. The amount of private information you share on your smartphone, and the ease with which spies can now access it, make the Stasi look like a medieval relic. Unfortunately, it’s not just spies who are tracking your every move. It is also phone-hacking British journalists and data-devouring, for-profit U.S. Internet companies.
The essential good that’s under threat from all these technology-empowered agents can also be spelled out in one word: privacy. “Privacy is dead. Get over it,” a Silicon Valley boss once reportedly remarked. Some of us don’t accept that. We believe that preserving individual privacy is essential not just to human dignity but to freedom and security.
The difficulty is that privacy is at once essential to and in tension with both freedom and security. A cabinet minister who keeps his mistress in satin sheets at the taxpayer’s expense cannot justly object when the press exposes him. The citizen’s freedom to scrutinize public figures trumps the minister’s claim to privacy. But where and how do we draw the line between genuine public interest and what merely interests the public? Equally, if we are to be protected from terrorists on our daily commute to work, some potentially dangerous people must have their phones bugged and e-mails read. But who, how many and with what controls?
The essence of what the reporting of Edward Snowden’s leaks has revealed is that those checks and balances were not working properly in the United States and Britain. The U.S. National Security Agency and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters were simply hoovering up too much data on too many private individuals in too many countries, using the leeway provided by outdated, overbroad laws and inadequate parliamentary or congressional oversight. The fact that President Barack Obama’s administration and the U.S. Congress reportedly now intend to tighten things up, and Britain is edging in that direction, demonstrates that something was wrong. Would they be springing into action if not for the whistleblower and a free press?
Recently, the debate has gone off at a tangent about supposedly friendly governments spying on each other. That’s a different question. If I am the government of country X, of course I want my own secrets to be entirely secure while I can covertly access those of all other governments. In practice, everyone tries it on. There is a case to be made that if the world’s defence ministries were to all spy the Kevlar underpants off each other, the world might actually be a safer place.
But that is not what this debate should be about. The vital issue here is the privacy of innocent individual citizens. A free press has struck a blow for our privacy when legal and parliamentary controls had fallen short. But spies are not the only people to use contemporary communications technology to violate the privacy of individuals without good cause. The British satirical magazine Private Eye captures this brilliantly. Under the headline Merkel Fury At Obama Phone Hacking, it shows a photo of the German chancellor grimly clasping her cellphone. Her superimposed speech bubble says: “Who do you think you are? Rupert Murdoch?”
Even as British Prime Minister David Cameron and columnists in Murdoch-owned British papers denounce the Guardian for endangering national security, former Murdoch tabloid editor Rebekah Brooks goes on trial. The charges originate in journalists hacking into the phones of private individuals. This was done in the interests not of national security but of national titillation – commercial gain.
So if a free press is needed to check the surveillance excesses of the state, most of the British public also wants to see curbs on the surveillance excesses of a free press. But they don’t want those powers in the hands of politicians – with good reason, witness a recent attempt by the chairman of Britain’s Conservative Party to whip the British Broadcasting Corp. into line.
Yet on Wednesday, we saw a cumbersome and antiquated attempt to underpin enhanced self-regulation of the British press through a Royal Charter passed in Privy Council. The Privy Council is, in practice, a few senior ministers from the governing parties, standing (not sitting) in the presence of Her Majesty, who simply says, “Approved.” And that’s it.
Still, all it does is to establish a mechanism for officially recognizing a press self-regulation body that many leading newspapers (including the Murdoch group) are saying they won’t submit for recognition. What’s more, the very idea of regulating “the press” in a national framework is fast becoming anachronistic. Where does “the press” end, and Twitter or Facebook begin?
Meanwhile, data is spilling not just across all platforms but also across national frontiers. So the EU aims to enforce stronger protection for the privacy of Europeans, against U.S. giants, through a new directive. But brings the danger of fragmenting the Internet into sovereign patches, which authoritarian regimes would welcome. Privacy for some could then be enhanced at the cost of freedom of expression for all.
What’s the answer? There is no easy one, but let’s at least keep our eyes on the right target, which is not states spying on states. It’s this massive erosion of privacy – your privacy.
Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.