Giving and taking personal data

Update July 7 c.11.45pm: Since I wrote this piece this has been tweeted, which is disconcerting though I don’t have the full context.

 

 

While the Prism exposé was a fantastic scoop for The Guardian, that the US is spying on the planet wasn’t that surprising. America is a superpower of surveillance and intelligence gathering is a pretty basic part of national security, even if the scale could be a bit startling. At least they’re not going through your post (or are they?).

When I lived in the Middle East any post I got from home was regularly opened and looked at. I didn’t have any personal letters going through, at least not that I remember. It was mostly magazines and newspapers from home, sent by dad. There were probably a few bank statements too. Mostly the envelopes were opened and taped shut again, but there was one occasion when one of the office managers came over to me with a whole mess of stuff that had been opened and but into a large clear plastic bag that was then stapled shut. She pulled a face and said something along the lines of “err…” One of my colleagues suggested they’d been looking for porn – a racy article in a foreign newspaper might well be cut out or blotted out with marker. I wish I’d kept a photo of it. The magazines in my batch were Forbes and Newsweek, in case you’re wondering.

Other people had things confiscated, although the powers that be wouldn’t necessarily tell you that. They might tell your boss though. We got an email from the editor one day asking us all to be careful about what was sent to us (painkillers and Bibles were the examples given). Somebody is always watching. After that I became more concerned about what I gave away about myself and what I got up to. Privacy does matter.

While the Abu Dhabi authorities would argue it was well within their rights to check on things coming into the country (and it is under law), I would be surprised if they didn’t have some log of it somewhere. This is mild stuff in the world of surveillance. Other journalists in other places have had their phones tapped or been followed. And we all know how journalists at News International hacked people’s phones in the hunt for a story. However, I’m not suggesting this is on the scale of the NSA’s activities, which has seen it collect and request data from major companies such as Microsoft. I don’t agree with it in the slightest, but I’m not wholly surprised by it either.

The US has argued that one cannot expect 100% security without giving up 100% privacy. While most people will have nothing to worry about, it’s a dangerous precedent because it’s a short step from collecting online information for national security reasons to monitoring everything for internal security reasons. It’s not exactly as Ice T once put it, “freedom of speech, just watch what you say”, and it’s definitely not like Big Brother from 1984, but it’s easy to see how it could be that way. Somebody is always watching.

A post I wrote years ago about the Pentagon resulted in somebody from the Pentagon visiting Tinyplanetblog.com. I was oddly flattered and yet slightly worried, as wee me wouldn’t stand much chance against the US cybermilitary – and generally speaking cyberwar techniques have improved dramatically since then.

There are pros and cons to giving data away. Information is a valuable commodity, and privacy just as valuable. What we put up online – or what is learned about our activities online – can benefit or come back to haunt us. I’m quite a private person yet I’ve made my peace with giving up a bit of data if it means improved services. For ages I kept all location services turned off on my phone and iPad, but in the past couple of months I’ve pretty much left them on so as to use my mobile devices to their potential. It’s not 1984, where I now love Big Brother. I’m giving a smidgen of what I have as it means I can get more. I suppose data is currency.

Data is a double-edged sword. On one side, you could argue that a society that is more open about everything online could encourage a more open and society. On the other side, it means a higher likelihood of being more vulnerable to identity theft or just general snooping. However, if things are out in the open and you’re taking charge of it, it can’t be used against you effectively. Even then, though, there’s no guarantee that what’s being shared is accurate as it’s easy to change one’s identity online.

For a journalist, raw data is an invaluable source of stories. We can take reams and reams of figures and plot them on charts in interesting ways. But imagine the horror is we were to do something like that based on your Google searches or Gmail chats.

As a journalist, and particularly as a senior one in a national newspaper, I’m comfortable with being out there and available. Anybody who wants to can follow me on Twitter or send me a message on Facebook, though I keep higher privacy settings there than I do on Twitter.

Every time we google something we’re giving away a bit of information about ourselves. I can look at the visitor logs for this site and see where people are coming from, broadly speaking, and usually down to the IP address. There’s no point in getting indignant because somebody is watching, or at least can watch, us online. It’s been happening for years and it’s not going to change. What we can do, though, is be more careful about what we post, how we search, and who can see what. Don’t give it all away for free is what I would say. Make people earn it.

What say you?

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