A sliding scale of intrusion
Privacy has always been ill-defined in British law. In an era when the public openly share personal information and also make paradoxical statements about their privacy concerns, it is increasingly difficult to measure online privacy. In the present climate, privacy groups and intelligence experts have different concerns of privacy.
This makes the debate over the current draft Communications Data (CD) Bill extremely tricky. The Bill that has just been scrutinised by a joint committee is demanding communications companies collect and retain data of people’s online communications for a period of 12 months, to be made available when an investigation warrants it. Given that more than one trillion devices are expected to be connected to the Internet across the globe by 2015 – the bill obviously has some major ramifications.
In her evidence to the Committee last week, the Home Secretary acknowledged the bill is very controversial, but felt that it does strike a balance between security and privacy. However, striking the balance is getting increasingly difficult because we don’t know what privacy and communications data mean to the general public.
Demos researchers Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller suggest one way in their recently submitted written evidence to the Joint Committee: try to put the public at the heart of the Bill. Putting together some empirical evidence on data sharing, the submission shows how public attitudes and definitions of communication data is not always the same. On several occasions, the public do not make a clear distinction between content and communication data and their privacy concerns tend to vary based on the context. Further, as another Demos report on data sharing suggests, there is also a growing crisis of confidence over how government and business handle personal data.
In only focusing on CD and not content, the Government does recognise that some kinds of data are more private than others. The bill highlights a differentiation between various kinds of communication data, which serves to highlight the scale of communications data to be stored.
However, it fails to recognise the different levels of intrusion in accessing such data. It is for this reason that Demos researchers call for a more nuanced scale.
The public have a right to know if their privacy is being invaded, and to what extent.
In the present climate, when surveys suggest that individuals are losing trust on how data about them is being collected, used and shared by governments, it becomes essential not only to inform and reassure the public about why, how and for what their personal data (anonymous or otherwise) is being collected or used, but also to design a system that maintains an association between degree of intrusion and the limits placed on it.