The internet is just over 45 years old. With many of us increasingly living our lives online, we must question whether the digital age has changed how we perceive the private sphere, or whether privacy is an absolute which we should expect online as well as off? The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 was passed last week, legalizing the most sweeping surveillance powers in Western Europe and arguably going even further than many autocracies as it “gives security services access to an unprecedented amount of information about communications between citizens”.
The controversial act additionally legalises intelligence services and permits the hacking of computers and mobile phones by the police. They have access to masses of stored personal data, even if the person under scrutiny is not suspected of any wrongdoing. The previous “double lock” system, whereby a warrant authorised by the home secretary and judge was required, has been contentiously abandoned. Access to records of all of a person’s internet activity no longer require a warrant at all. Access to ICRs must be signed off by ‘a designated senior person’, which means police get to approve their own access. Such encroachment on our privacy is arguably more suited to a dictatorship than a democracy, as Berners-Lee’s invention becomes a declining force for good. Information has become currency and we are seeing the emergence of a hypocritical two-tier approach to privacy – (privacy for me, but not for thee).
Some commentators have suggested that the internet has lost its way – abandoning the principles of freedom and egalitarianism which it was created to embody. However, there will inevitably be a two-tier system in our attitudes towards the rights of the individual and the rights of knowledge. The debate surrounding online privacy is a fundamental paradox. The advent of the digital age was intended to embody the free sharing and dissemination of information between people across borders, but it is now clear that the democratizing nature of the internet has not been fulfilled. Whilst we continue to give up increasingly intimate and personal details, we know that our privacy is being compromised. Everyone is aware that we are being monitored, but we continue to remain nonchalant and blithe. We are not internet users. We are its product.
Theresa May’s Clare Law, for example, allows British women to check the police records of their partners or potential partners, allowing them access to records of acts of domestic violence, stalking or harassment across Britain. Although we can view this as a victory in the fight against ‘anti-women violence’, its grassroots arguably remain in the same basket as the oppressor. Should we all then have the right to find out if our neighbour has ever committed burglary, so that we might take precautions against being burgled by them?
In the contemporary world, we are witnessing a peculiar double standard with regards to privacy, where our stance on information invasion is determined by whether we view them as the “the people we don’t like” or not. This is rather than seeing privacy as “an important part of the human experience that should be protected as far as possible”. Even if you're not convinced that your data is worth protecting, one of the most dramatic cultural changes in the last decade should not be glossed over. State intrusion into citizens’ personal lives has historically been a tool of repression, yet despite such unprecedented technological innovation, privacy should not be surrendered so lightly.