In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Although he was actually creating a pro-taxation, rather than pro-privacy, argument, his powerful words are still often used today, as we consider the implications that advancing technology is having upon our privacy and security.
It is a debate which is only likely to intensify over the coming months and years as modern technology enables increased surveillance and enhanced privacy in equal measure. Still, as supporters of surveillance will say to proponents of privacy, if you haven’t done anything wrong, what is there to worry about?
Currently, most arguments centre around two developments: the application of facial recognition by law enforcement; and the encryption of private messages sent using platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. So, is there a balance to be struck? Or are we reaching the stage where we must make a choice between privacy and security?
On the face of it
Despite concerns from its own watchdogs, the Metropolitan Police has begun using facial recognition in areas of the capital. Thousands of shoppers at the Stratford Centre are now scanned and checked against a watchlist of 5,000 biometric profiles of people who are wanted for “serious criminality, such as grievous bodily harm.”
There are two main concerns with this technology. The first is that results are not always accurate, particularly when recognising women and people of colour. US government tests found that even the top performing facial recognition software misidentified black faces five to 10 times as often as white faces.
Secondly, there are questions about how this data is collected and stored, as well as ethical considerations. Previously, if the police force wanted to obtain the biometric identifiers of an individual – fingerprints, for example – that person first had to be arrested on suspicion of a crime. With facial recognition, innocent civilians who may never be suspected of illegal activity may now have their personal information stored in a police database. Objectors believe this is akin to taking evidence before a crime is ever committed and infringes upon civil rights.
For your eyes only
At the same time as this privacy debate rages on, another is ongoing. This centres around mobile phones, messaging apps and encryption to secure communications. Facebook-owned WhatsApp already includes end-to-end encryption, to ensure that messages cannot be viewed by a third party, but plans to extend this feature to Instagram and Facebook Messenger have been criticised.
In particular, the US, UK and Australian governments have raised concerns that this encryption would mean even Facebook cannot police content – potentially making it difficult to protect vulnerable users, in particular children. More than 100 child protection agencies, including the NSPCC, have urged Facebook not to move ahead with these plans, and the US government has asked the tech giant to install a ‘back door’ which allows for surveillance if necessary. The problem with this, however, is that it is like leaving a key under the mat – anyone who knows it’s there could find it, and use it to get in.
Facebook is not the only tech business to put user’s privacy ahead of security, either. In 2016 Apple refused to unlock an iPhone used by a shooter in the San Bernadino attack, saying that this was a “civil liberties issue.”
Clearly, we are at something of a precipice, and are perhaps unprepared for the ethical challenges that advancements in technology might pose. It seems that proceeding with caution is the best way forward, and our only chance of balancing privacy with security.
The dangers of implementing technology before it is ready has been evidenced by Tesla, Amazon, Microsoft and half a million hoverboards, among many others. Slow and steady is perhaps the best way to avoid living within the pages of Orwell’s 1984.