The Edward-Effect

The revelations in 2013 of the NSA’s mass electronic surveillance programs gave birth to today’s online privacy debate

In the midst of the expanding capabilities of the government, the press and other businesses and institutions, Louis Brandeis, along with Samuel Warren, published “The Right To Privacy” in the Harvard Law Review in 1890. These two lawyers sought to project the idea of ‘the right to be left alone’ to avoid the disclosure of embarrassing facts about individuals to the public to prevent emotional harm. Even today, 126 years later, it remains one of the most influential essays in American law, and very much provides as the basis of how the much of the world thinks about privacy.

But today this idea of privacy has become nugatory in the modern world with all the technology which dominates it. The internet allows for a vast amount of information to be available for anybody connected to access it. Smartphones, with the use of various apps, can track and record all the different aspects of everyday life. The ‘internet of things’ will also provide as another means to do the same to an even greater degree. But with all these technologies comes the complex questions regarding civil liberties. In particular, establishing privacy in the digital age has been hard to achieve thus far.

The debate really started in 2013, when former CIA agent Edward Snowden leaked documents detailing a range of mass surveillance programs being conducted by the NSA . Not only were US civilians being spied on, but also other foreign countries, including some allies of the US, were subject to such surveillance activities. A range of data, from personal emails to phone records, were all being examined through the NSA’s spy glass. The British equivalent, GCHQ, was also found to be involved in such programs. Many were left shocked as to how much access these intelligence agencies had to such vast amounts of data.

These revelations from a few years ago have played a big role in the intensities which persist now. Technology companies, recognising that there is a strong demand for products and services that keep data secure, have implemented stronger encryption and other measures to satisfy those desires. WhatsApp, a messaging service, has recently started implementing end-to-end encryption to secure its users’ conversations. But this then creates a problem for intelligence and security agencies, who need access to such information for legitimate criminal and, especially of the essence, terrorist investigations.

Though businesses, too, have also been criticised. Facebook, for instance, has been involved in numerous court cases in both America and Europe regarding the use of personal data for advertising purposes or for other extended services on the company’s the social media site without prior consent.

Many more court cases regarding the issue of digital privacy are likely to come. A range of new laws dealing with these issues will attempt to balance privacy and security in the modern digital world. In doing so important questions should be addressed. Should police and intelligence services be made to always obtain warrants and/or explicit permission before intercepting communications or examining the contents of a suspect’s smartphone? Should technology companies be forced to comply with law enforcement upon request? Is mass surveillance of digital communications across the world sufficiently justified? Does privacy in this digital age even exist? The answers to these questions are not easy, which is why the debate regarding privacy continues on.

NEXT |Permission to Snoop

How mass electronic surveillance in America came into being