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In the era of 'big data', we all share blame for snooping

On government cyber-snooping, there's a large grey area between "right" and "wrong". And if we all want privacy so much, why do so many of us act the opposite way?

One of wisest responses to the revelations by Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower who detailed the US government's snooping on online communications, came from one of America's leading academic bloggers:

"Has the deadline for having a firm opinion about Snowden expired?" asked Daniel Drezner of Tufts University. "If so, I need an extension."

That captured the nub of the issue: there is no simple way to balance the rights and wrongs about government surveillance of communications. Which is the more serious threat: a major terrorist attack on US soil, or an over-mighty government that knows all our likes, moves and contacts? It's a hard call, and there is no shame in struggling to come to a conclusion.

The issue is a typical example of problems faced in the 21st century, as we try to balance ever-more-complex risks. In past centuries, people faced well-known, recurring threats - flood, famine, war, pestilence. There was not much that anyone could do about them, except store food and save money.

Today we are presented with an increasing array of risks too technically complex for most of us to grasp, but which we are expected to understand and act on, as individuals or by pressuring governments.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck, a pioneer in describing the "risk society", says we live in a state of impending catastrophe, with every news bulletin outlining new things that could go disastrously wrong. Nuclear power stations whose inner workings we do not understand might have an accident. Financial markets, whose workings even the traders do not understand, might crash and beggar us all. The climate is changing, and we must change the way we live, but what can any one person do to stop the world burning up?

In this atmosphere, security agencies steadily gain leeway to intrude into our private lives. The US National Security Agency spends a staggering $75 billion (Dh275bn) every year; its vast bureaucracy tracks electronic communications including foreign ones, since the internet giants such as Google and Facebook are based in the US.

The concept is not new. Post offices were long ago authorised to steam open envelopes and read letters, to keep track of potential spies or criminals.

What has changed is that now we stand naked before the snoopers. So much information is available from our mobile phones and Google searches and what we willingly post on Facebook and Twitter and so on. Privacy is a thing of the past.

What is stored electronically is searchable instantly, forever. No more will spy hunters, as in John le Carré novels, have to track down retired archivists and coax out their half-forgotten memories.

Growing use of the term "big data" - the huge mass of information, collected by companies and governments to be analysed by software - only heightens our fears. It sounds all too like George Orwell's all-seeing Big Brother: indeed sales of 1984, Orwell's dystopian fantasy of electronic dictatorship, have increased since the Snowden story.

Big data, according to a couple of experts writing in The Financial Times, will make it possible to "predict fires in the Amazon rainforest six months before they occur by analysing sea-surface data; help arrest a shoplifter who tweets outside the store by analysing social sentiment and geo-location data; and determine whether surgery is the best course of action for a patient by assessing trends across large numbers of lung-cancer patients".

If that is what the commercial sector is offering, then how much more worrying is what the state could do, when it knows where we go, to whom we speak and what we like? And that is the case now in the US, although government does not have the right to listen to phone calls without a warrant.

The question of how we balance risk and reward with all the data that is stored about us is, to be honest about it, already decided. Due to laziness and love of convenience we rarely hesitate to give details of our private lives to companies such as Facebook, in which we (or more precisely, our likes and dislikes) are the product the company sells to advertisers. We do this with social media, and know that much of this will be mined by the state.

In the US, the comforting argument is made that there have never been cases where the state has abused the data it holds to blackmail citizens. That may be true - or it may be false, for how would we know? - in America. But what about more authoritarian countries such as China or Russia?

The real issue is one of trust. US politicians and intelligence agencies misled the world in the run-up to the Iraq war. We have no proof - and no one can give any - that we will not be misled again.

A greater problem is that the spies decide what is a secret and what is not. When it served to get Barack Obama re-elected, secrets about Osama bin Laden's killing and the cyber war against Iran were revealed, as useful propaganda.

But when the venerable Associated Press news agency reported on a foiled terror plot in Yemen, the US justice department retaliated with a subpoena for the records of 20 phone lines used by its Washington journalists. As Mr Obama expands the surveillance state built up by his predecessor, Washington get ever more harsh in retaliating for "unauthorised" leaks.

Wherever people use mobile phones or social media they are already on the way to forfeiting their right to privacy. They have done so willingly, with some sleight of hand by Google, Facebook and others. Now that the full extent of their sharing of information with the US government is out in the open, the internet giants will need to be more open about what they do with our data.

For years, the US government has had a free ride, taking advantage of the fact that big data is such a mystery to all but experts. But now that the veil is lifted, governments around the world will have to be more open too.

 

aphilps@thenational.ae

On Twitter:@aphilps

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