Saturday, March 21, 2015
Seminar 2 Position Statement: Dr Madeline Carr (International Politics)
Advances in information and communications technology over the past two decades have contributed to a tension in many societies between expectations of privacy, security, transparency and accountability. We see this demonstrated clearly at an individual or societal level. At the same time as we object to the intelligence community’s access to our personal data, the parents of three young British girls who absconded to Syria protest that Scotland Yard should have picked up on Twitter messages that could have alerted them to their children’s plans. We are conflicted about our expectations of privacy and security, about appropriate behaviour for a range of social, political and security actors and about how to balance the opportunities presented by ‘big data’ with the potential pitfalls.
This societal tension is reflected in international relations where we have seen some real struggles to apply existing international law and also to reassess norms of state behaviour in this regard. Debates about appropriate levels of state surveillance of civil society as well as political actors have arisen in several contexts recently. The Arab Spring uprisings that made such effective use of social networking media also revealed the extent to which authoritarian regimes used surveillance technology (often provided by Western firms) to track the movements of protesters, identify them and collect data for subsequent prosecutions. This ‘dual-use’ technology leads to questions about export bans and qualitative judgements about which governments should have access to these tools and which should not. And who should make those decisions.
Of course, these debates are not limited to authoritarian states. Both Wikileaks and the Snowden leaks raised questions about the relationship between the state and civil society in the West which speak to the themes of sur/sous/veillance. Wikileaks prompted debate about foreign policy transparency and state accountability. Julian Assange encouraged us to consider a world in which foreign policy was constructed and practiced without secrecy. He challenged the long held assumption that diplomacy is most effective when conducted in some degree of privacy and he opened space for considerations of how more transparency might transform international relations.
The Snowden revelations have suggested that oversight of the intelligence community has been lacking through the recent technological transition. While we may wish law enforcement and intelligence agencies to be able to make full use of data to protect us, there remains a strong expectation that these powers will not be abused and it is clear that we do not yet have mechanisms in place to ensure that. Loopholes that have facilitated states spying on their own citizens contravene legal and normative frameworks and threaten to undermine trust in the state. However, in a context of globalisation and post-Cold War conflict, the distinction between domestic and international becomes somewhat less distinct.
All of this has to be considered within the context of the role of the private sector – the receptacle of most of our personal data that ends up online. The unrestrained and ungoverned collection of data by private corporations which is then commodified and distributed for profit is at the heart of these tensions of privacy, security, transparency and accountability. While much of the focus of these discussions is on state actors (as it should be) much less attention is paid to private actors which operate without transparency and with accountability to their shareholders only. Private sector led mechanisms like the Global Network Initiative, established to provide guidance to online data services facing requests from governments seemed to have been entirely ineffectual in the West. Concerns about geo-location services, excessively liberal terms and conditions, and an almost complete lack of access to information about how our data is repurposed seems to be consistently ignored in favour of ‘free’ applications and services and ultimately, profits. Essentially, if the law enforcement and intelligence communities require more oversight, certainly one could argue that the private sector does as well.
All of these questions can and should be considered within the context of the recently adopted UN Resolution on the Right to Privacy in the Digital Age. This Resolution provides a framework for the way that norms in international relations are developing to accommodate and adapt to the rapid increase in personal data available online and the challenges this poses to our expectations of privacy, security, sur/sous/veillance and trust.