(Last of a Two-part Series)
In this second and final part of our conversation, Privacy International's senior policy adviser Gus Hosein further discussed the right to privacy as among the initial casualties of the commercialisation of the internet and ultimately, the so-called “war on terror.” Albeit the paranoia manufactured by Bush administration following the September 11 events and its disastrous results have been interrogated and criticised in recent years, signs still point to the need for a heightened vigilance over our right to privacy.
Isis: How would you locate privacy in the advent of the internet? What are the most common challenges that the internet pose on a person's right to privacy? What can be the effective response to such challenges?
Hosein: Privacy was part and parcel of the development of the internet. As much as the early users and developers wanted to create a new world of open communication networks, they also wanted to ensure that individual autonomy was enabled through the protection of confidentiality. The commercialisation of the internet, in its earlier stages did not change this too much as users wanted confidence in their electronic transactions and e-commerce companies wanted to provide secure and private communications to enable trade.
The rise of internet advertising has changed all of this. Companies are monitoring what we search for, where we go on the internet, and what we say in communications or on social networking sites. They do this so that they can create better profiles and take a piece of the projected US$12 billion market in online advertising. The more information they have on you, the greater the certainty that they can sell you to others.
After years of pressure, some companies realise that this is a serious invasion of privacy. Some of them have even designed their techniques to protect privacy to varying degrees. But much more remains to be done. And governments need to wake up to this threat (unless they too see the benefit of every internet user having a profile based on what she or he does online).
Isis: In public governance, "privacy" is replaced by "secrecy" or "confidentiality." where do you draw the line between public interest (access to information) and national security (confidential information)?
Hosein: Transparency, openness, the freedom of the media, and freedom of expression are things we believe strongly in, and have advocated for over the years.
We also understand that there may be a public interest to the invasion of privacy. But I have never seen a compelling definition of “public interest.” Same goes for “national security”: Does it justify the invasion of the privacy of a suspected terrorist? Probably yes, though within carefully designed limits. But often when governments cry “national security” to justify the invasion of privacy, in my experience they are usually justifying the invasion of everyone's privacy.
Isis: Briefly, what is the convention on cybercrime and how can it impact the global south? what are the indications of its ripple effects internationally?
Hosein: The Convention is a charter for surveillance. The Council of Europe created the convention to operate within the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights. That is, every CoE member state has ratified the ECHR, which provides a very strong level of protection of privacy. As countries in the global South start adopting the Convention they are absolutely ignoring the human rights protections within the ECHR, and ignoring what little protections are within the Cybercrime Convention itself.
And let's be real: the cybercrime convention is hardly about cybercrime. One tenth of it is about hacking. The remainder of the convention is about enabling surveillance for any investigation. It also enables investigations across borders, where a government must share surveillance information with any other country that seeks it. That is, any other country that signs on to the Convention, whether it is China or Russia, can demand of another country, say the Philippines, to hand over information on Philippines' internet users. That user may not have broken a law in the Philippines, but may have said something wrong on a website in China. You can't seek protection from the Philippines' government because it cannot refuse the request.
This is going to create chaos as one government spies upon the citizens of another country. And this is all going to happen because our politicians were too lazy to read the convention and consider the implications while they were busy talking tough on this amorphous issue of 'cybercrime'.
Isis: How would you assess the campaign against “terrorism” in relation to human rights, including the right to privacy?
Hosein: In the years after 9/11 many laws with particularly alarming powers of surveillance were introduced but for the purpose of combating terrorism. Politicians were ecstatic at their efficiency in passing laws to combat terror, particularly as they could paint their opposition as “weak on terror.” So they decided to pursue greater and greater powers, and instead of limiting the purpose to combatting terror, they spread it across the board to all investigations into all illegal activities. If their opposition argued against these powers, the politicians could again say that the opposition was “weak on terror,” even though the law had little to do with terrorism, if at all. Since then they have also increased the breadth of the definition of “illegal activities.” As a result, the scary pieces of legislation are no longer called 'Terrorism Act 2008.” Rather the surveillance schemes are embedded within laws on taxation, public services, health, education, and even environment.
Isis: With the bush administration coming to an end. do you think that the language of anti-terrorism will change in the near future?
Hosein: The greatest accomplishment of the Bush administration, and indeed his personal legacy, is that he was able to get every other country on earth to change their legal systems to grant greater powers to the state. Remember in the years before the Bush administration, we used to talk a lot about the “death of the nation state”? Now the state is alive and hungry for more power. And so I do not see the language changing over time as governments around the world are now proudly carrying the banner written by the Bush Administration.
Look at the EU: For a few years it fought the Bush administration on surveillance laws. Now the EU is leading the world with highly invasive surveillance practices that go well beyond anything that the Bush administration could ever dream of implementing in the United States. Now you almost have to respect a White House administration that was able to turn the world's values upside down with such ease.
So watch for other countries to take the leadership role in pushing surveillance and reduced human rights protections. Watch how the EU is spending money on fingerprinting individuals around the world. Look at what China is doing as it invests in countries in Africa. Watch what the large IT companies are trying to sell to your governments, and look at who sits on their boards. The future is not going to be boring just because there is a change in the White House.