A few weeks ago, Google revealed it would stop scanning the content of emails sent through its free email service, Gmail. What’s that, you say? Google can read my emails? That’s right. It uses the data to create personalised ads based on what you say to your mates. (Presumably that means the majority of the ads most of those below the age of thirty see are selling cute little cats that can’t spell and LadBible t-shirts.) Now, though, it just uses the wealth of data it collects from your browsing habits to personalise your ads – assuming, of course, you use Google, and not Ask Jeeves. How reassuring.
The conflict between individual privacy and the expanding digital word in which we live has been a topic of discussion for some time now. Its pertinence as an issue has grown as large digital corporations, not to mention governments, collect more and more of our data with, it seems, ever-increasing impunity. The Investigatory Powers Act, passed in 2016, lets the government view which websites you’ve visited in the last year. Later this year, the Digital Economy Bill will be discussed in parliament which, if passed, will require proof of identity to be presented before you can watch porn. And of course, we all already know that Facebook, Google, Twitter – and basically everything else connected with the internet – keeps a bunch of data on us so they can personalise their ads, remarket, and try and sell us stuff.
If the only issue here was annoying adverts popping up on our Twitter feeds, it wouldn’t be too big a deal, even if it is extremely irritating seeing the same advert for pet insurance pop up three times a day. However, when it comes to being able to see exactly what we watched in the semi-moral depths of Youtube one bored day in third year when we should have been revising, it all starts to sound rather Orwellian. The justification from the government is that, of course, it’s all in the name of safety.
The argument goes that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that. Any websites that don’t fall in line with what the government thinks should exist could be blocked or destroyed altogether, and its definition of what is unacceptable is loose at best.
Then there’s the fact that all of the things we own will eventually become connected to both each other and the internet. Smart-things are becoming more and more prevalent; we now have smart fridges, smart vacuum cleaners and smart washing machines. You can buy yourself a smart hairbrush that monitors your brushing technique and uploads it to an app so you can see how you can improve. It even records the sound of breaking hair, so you know when you’re brushing too hard. Don’t worry, I’m as angry as you.
Smart devices, intrinsically linked to big data, raise issues of privacy and security and the trade-off between the two. Sooner than we realise, hundreds of different devices, from our lights to our cars, will be connected, and will hold a wealth of information about us and our lives. What is essential is that this data is entirely secure and that our privacy is respected and maintained. This is something that has to be thoroughly considered way back at the design stage of the of the product: if security isn’t built into the product, privacy suffers.
This became pertinent recently when it was revealed that the terrorist who conducted the Westminster attack had sent a WhatsApp message moments before he committed his crime. WhatsApp uses an encryption practice in its messages meaning they cannot be read by anyone but the sender and the recipient. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, called this ‘completely unacceptable’ a few days later. She also didn’t know what a hashtag was, though.
What all this comes down to is how much of our privacy we are willing to sacrifice in the name of security. Obviously, being able to track down terrorists through the messages they send and the devices they use is good, if it stops terrorist attacks; on the other hand, the only way of making this work is if the government can track everybody, something that’s started already. As more and more everyday objects become connected to the internet and loaded with our data, we must make sure our personal lives are not affected. Already, you can find out the exact location of your mates on Snapchat, and it’s not discussed how secure its opt-out feature is. This shows just how much these companies know about you.
Fortunately, the big corporations that hold this data are unlikely to use it for ill; they mostly just want to be able to sell you some more stuff through personalised marketing, and implement new, modern features so you carry on using their product. But when the government can start trawling through your websites, see exactly what you’re saying, when you’re saying it, and whom you’re saying it to, it becomes cause for concern. The big question of our age is about which we value more: privacy, or security? Technology is meant to empower people. If we don’t make the right decisions in the near future, it could be used to do just the opposite.