Should we worry about Governments snooping on us?

Jonathan Craymer
July 25, 2020

According to a report on Wikileaks a while ago, the CIA has plans to eavesdrop on us all via the microphones in smart TVs and smart phones.

Listening to a phone-in about this story (Radio 2’s JeremyVine show), one caller predictably took the line that if honest citizens didn’t have anything to hide, why should any of us worry? This was then followed bytwo oddball stories. One listener claimed to have heard faint voices coming out of the TV discussing his own lounge, which understandably spooked him. Another claimed she’d sent back her smart TV after cursing at it and seeing a message appear on screen asking her not to use abusive language.

I mention these three calls, as they illustrate the way that the opportunity to get into the real core of stories such as these, often gets  lost in hearsay and hyperbole.

Don’t worry. I’m not expecting phone-ins to suddenly become logical in either order or content. I’ve presented too many such programmes in a previous life (14 years in radio), to expect any kind of structure when you open up the floodgates to Joe Public. That’s part of the joy of them. But it was sad that the opportunity to focus for a few minutes on the issue of increased intrusion in our daily lives was lost. At least in the part of the programme I heard.

Anyway back to the frequently used “why should we worry?” argument. It’s true there may be benefits in allowing law enforcement and securityservices to snoop on private citizens – just as phone tapping has been debated for years by politicians and others - if it really helps them to catch terrorists and criminals and keep the rest of us safe. And such snooping is limited in scale. It’s a small trade off.

But isn’t the real story here that the technology even exists? And that sadly security and law enforcement officers don’t have a monopoly on these things, and once such facilities are out there, it may be only a matter of time before they fall into the wrong hands - exposing all of us to surveillance by all and sundry, including of course the bad guys.

Also, are we sleepwalking into a world like that portrayed in George Orwell’s 1984, where ‘telescreens’ monitor and control citizens intheir homes. There are many aspects to society today and the way technology impacts on us, which Orwell would have recognised instantly from his nightmarish vision.

Apple, Samsung and others of course were quick to react with indignation to the news, and to reassure us that their latest software won’tallow such surveillance. And it is possible that improvements in operating systemsmay head the whole idea off at the pass. Yet nothing is ever that simple. Will governments pressurise manufacturers into leaving in ‘backdoors’ (without telling us!), or as happened a while back regarding password protection on an Apple phone, will they whenever it suits them, try to coerce makers into allowing officers access?

As a species, we’re easily seduced by the face valuebenefits of technology, and just as easily blinded to the downsides. There is no simple answer to all this, as great marketing words like ‘smart’ or‘connected’ when applied to items like TVs and phones, go hand in hand with ‘their’ ability to monitor us.

Many of us don’t mind our behaviour being monitored, as long as it doesn’t get personal. And it’s this sensitive part of the slider that we perhaps need to keep our eyes on.

Is law enforcement keeping an unwelcome eye on us?

For my part, I’m hoping technology will allow us to protect our identities far more.

A few years ago, there were attempts in the US to hammer out a voluntary code of conduct governing facial recognition technology, amid very real fears that holders of huge numbers of photographs (do I need to name them?) might gather them up and somehow allow everyone on the planet to be identified by anyone who buys the database.

A 2016 article in Wired quoted Alvaro Bedoya a Professor of law at Georgetown University saying it’s not hard to imagine a future where someone walks into a car dealership and immediately the dealership knows who they are, where they live, their income, their credit score – all thanks to Facebook.

OK we’re veering here into biometrics and their dangers, but let’s explore that a little. When attempts were originally being made by Facebook to offer huge quantities of user pictures to US law enforcement, nine groups concerned with personal privacy in the US including the American Civil Liberties Union and Consumer Federation of America had struggled in vain to agree terms with the biometrics lobby. As a parting shot they stressed that it was the facial recognition companies’ unwillingness to ask people’s permission that worried them. In a joint statement, they said “At a base minimum, people should be able to walk down a public street without fear that companies they’ve never heard of are tracking their every movement – and identifying them by name – using facial recognition technology”.

My own fear is that eventually a Pokemon-style app will become available, allowing anyone walking down the street to know instantly whoeveryone else is, and how much they’re worth.

We were at one point interested in working with a company which does voice recognition for call centres. What we didn't ask at the time was whether people’s permissions were sought every time a member of the public for instance, phoned a local authority or utility company. Maybe they were asked, but perhaps they thought there was no choice?

In an ideal world, there might be legislation which will force companies selling this kind of mass-use biometric identification technology to seek our permission first. And if we choose not to be on their database, there could be an optional way of proving we are who we say we are, which won’t require us to give away personal details.

Where on earth could we find such a system? :-)

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