Privacy dead in the current age? Legal as well as public policy issues

December 5, 2013 |

The PM radio program does regular analysis pieces on various topical issues without being specific to a particular event.  It is an excellent approach because while it is usually tied to a matter of recent interest it does not go stale with time.

In light of the Snowden revelations of how much data of Australians has gone missing the PM program did a piece titled Is privacy dead in the age of digital social media? which provides:

PETER LLOYD: When the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, declared that privacy was dead in the age of digital social media, it touched something of a raw nerve among those who fear for what they have to loose in this brave new world.

Danny Weitzner is one of them. It’s no exaggeration to say that he is one of the world’s leading internet policy experts.

He was briefly an advisor on the internet to president Barack Obama.

Our discussion got to privacy, but it began with the question of the day: whether digital-era intelligence leaks are a public good?

DANNY WEITZNER: I think there’s no question that we are now having a serious and valuable discussion about privacy and the limits of intelligence authorities because of what’s known and revealed. There’s also no question that he committed a number of crimes in the process and that’s all going to have to be sorted out but I think the most important thing is that in democracies we need to know how our intelligence services function. It’s been quite a while in…

PETER LLOYD: Really, do we really?

DANNY WEITZNER: Of course we do, of course we need to know how the power that is fundamentally the people’s power is being exercised to protect national security. We understand that some information has to be kept secret but we also know that we need strong oversight mechanisms when we give these large, very powerful agencies the ability to, you know, to use their power against individuals.

PETER LLOYD: The answer many people would put to you I guess on the right is you don’t want to know how the sausage is made if the enemy knows that too?

DANNY WEITZNER: You know checks and balances is the basis of any democracy, it’s the only way a government can function in a trustworthy and reliable way. Again, I think we worked out those checks and balances as to the previous generation of intelligence gathering particularly as to electronic surveillance.

But there’s a whole new generation of technologies, a whole new generation of capabilities that out intelligence agencies have and we know from Snowden that we have not figured out the right kind of oversight mechanisms.

We even know from the chief judge of the court that was put in place in the United States to oversee these intelligence activities, the chief judge of that court said that he does not have the ability to assess whether his orders are being complied with appropriately except by asking the agencies who are the subject of the order whether they’re following the order.

So that is clearly not an effectively oversight mechanism, we’re going to have to fix that. I hope it will happen sooner rather than later, but the intelligence agencies have powerful political forces behind them and I think we’re in for a rocky discussion.

PETER LLOYD: Can you bring me your perspective on the debate in Australia this week about the Government of Australia having a phone tap list that included the president of Indonesia and his wife and a circle of allies and friends. Was it appropriate to do that, is it appropriate that the public knows that it happens. Is that necessary information?

DANNY WEITZNER: I can’t really shed enormous privacy to yours when we discover that world leaders are subject to intelligence gathering or even the spouses of world leaders. I think this goes with the territory to some extent and no-one should be too shocked. The question is, is there appropriate oversight over these activities? Is there oversight…

PETER LLOYD: Apparently not, we know about it. (laughs)

DANNY WEITZNER: Well (laughs) that’s right. I think on the one hand we’ve heard from government officials and commentators that of course government’s spy on each other. What I’m concerned about in all of these revelations about expanded intelligence powers is the question of whether innocent civilians are being caught up in the surveillance nets.

PETER LLOYD: But isn’t the trust between sovereign states, isn’t that key to this debate?

DANNY WEITZNER: You know I think that sovereign states have to establish trust on intelligence matters but they do that in private, the discussion that’s going on now I have to believe is largely for domestic consumption on both sides of the equation and that’s understandable.

But again what I think we ought to be concerned about in the conduct of intelligence agencies is that they have the ability to sweep up communications as we now know of hundreds of millions of people all around the world, and 99.9 per cent of those people are entirely innocent and should not be the subject of intelligence activities, that’s where our challenge is, I think as a global community. Remember that in previous generations of intelligence gathering the scale of data collection was relatively small, most people didn’t make even international telephone calls.

PETER LLOYD: We have a big vacuum cleaner now, so how do you stop sucking…

DANNY WEITZNER: That’s right we have a big vacuum cleaner and much more, almost every individuals lives is online in some way and subject to be sucked into that vacuum cleaner.

So I’d want us to focus on that set of questions; maybe someone should be asking what the Australian intelligence agencies are doing with their big vacuum cleaner. The fact that they happen to get one political leaders wife, my guess is probably not the main event.

PETER LLOYD: That’s Danny Weitzner, the director of the Decentralized Information Group at MIT University, currently visiting Australia.


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