There’s an interesting divide opening up about information privacy. As the UK Home Secretary Theresa May vows to re-introduce the ill-fated Data Communications Bill, pole-axed by her Coalition partners the Liberal Democrats because of its “chilling” reach into citizens’ privacy, the European Union and many ordinary US citizens are calling for greater privacy protections.
A new US poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 80 per cent of American adults are worried about government monitoring of their internet communications and phone calls. Even more believe they have lost control over how private firms scoop up personal information on them.
Meanwhile, over in Brussels, an unnamed EU spokesman recently told the Financial Times that security services had the right to access information within the confines of law but made a point of stating that that doesn’t mean “anything goes.”
So strongly is the EU feeling about the Edward Snowden/NSA scandal, in fact, that it’s considering reviewing its “safe harbour” online data protection agreement with the US. This allowed American companies to have access to access to European citizens’ data, based on the assumption that US data privacy standards were equivalent to Europe’s. The NSA scandal has rocked that boat perilously: the German government has already backed proposed EU legislation that will restrict the sharing of personal information between US firms and security/intelligence agencies. The initiative follows outrage amongst Germans that Angela Merkel and her government did not protect their internet privacy: public opinion there is trenchantly opposed to eroding any safeguards on privacy in the name of security or anything else.
There is, however, a dilemma: when asked if they would be prepared to trade some personal information in exchange for keeping internet content free of charge, 55 per cent of those equally militant US respondents said that they would.
Perhaps the answer doesn’t lie with legislation. Commenting on the US poll, Jules Polonetsky, head honcho at the US Future of Privacy Forum (a privacy-focussed think tank) said that technology companies could come to the rescue, offering new tools to give internet users security and control over their data.
As we go to press, news has broken that Mozilla is collaborating with privacy software specialists at the Tor Project on a new “Polaris” initiative to deliver an ultra-secure, ultra-private web experience.
Maybe Polonetsky is onto something.