It must be 15 years since the first time I wrote the phrase, “Privacy will be one of the defining challenges of the internet age”. In the intervening years, that challenge has grown enormously.
Allied with privacy is trust, and it’s clear nobody trusts a word the government has to say on the subject. Home secretary Theresa May’s recent appearance in front of a committee of MPs examining her Investigatory Powers Bill showed as much.
She insisted that the UK government does not conduct mass surveillance of its citizens, for example, provoking widespread cynicism across social media in the light of Edward Snowden’s revelations about GCHQ snooping.
May also insisted that government has no plans to ban encryption or legislate for the introduction of backdoors. However, she did say that companies would be expected to act on a lawful warrant ordering the disclosure of data to the authorities – something that many providers who offer end-to-end encryption would find very difficult, if not impossible.
There is widespread agreement that security services need to access internet data to help keep the UK safe. The challenge, of course, is where to draw the line between necessary surveillance and acceptable levels of privacy.
Law enforcement inevitably feels that the loss of privacy is worth it. An FBI cyber security expert recently told me exactly that – ensuring security is a price worth paying and citizens should accept that governments will be able to store, access and analyse their data. But he would say that, wouldn’t he? Such an attitude will make most of us feel deeply uncomfortable.
The more authoritarian that governments become in their surveillance, the more the technology community will find ways to protect people from such intrusion – new forms of encryption, additional layers of data security – that makes it harder to intercept our data, and in turn makes governments introduce even more extreme legislation.
There is a real danger of an ongoing spiral into ever greater surveillance powers.
The Investigatory Powers Bill will be an important landmark but will not be the end of the privacy debate. As individuals, inevitably, become more security aware and technologies emerge to give us more control over who can see our data and what they can do with it, this will become an ever more personal issue for all of us.
Governments will need to be less patrician about how they approach privacy and surveillance, and do more to earn our trust. They can be sure that technology will give us all much greater control of our data, and without that trust the essential work of the security services only becomes harder.