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The right to privacy Vs the right to spy

Posted by on November 5, 2014.

Human rights are hugely misunderstood — there is actually no such thing. We are born with no ‘rights’; we are simply born. The assertion of a right is nothing more than a refusal to accept a negative. It is a denial that some third party should be allowed to prevent something. In this way, a ‘right’ is no more than a majority opinion in opposing views.

Robert Hannigan, director, GCHQ

Robert Hannigan, director, GCHQ

GCHQ chief Robert Hannigan’s article in the FT provides a good example. The key to his whole argument is the assertion, “privacy has never been an absolute right”. First of all, it shows muddled thinking. ‘Rights’ are binary; they either exist or they do not exist. Black is black and white is white. If you add any other shades they are no longer either black or white. They are something different.

But perhaps more to the point and encouraging for those who believe in the concept of privacy, Hannigan’s association of the words ‘privacy’ and ‘right’ demonstrates his underlying acceptance that the majority opinion is that we should have privacy. That makes it a right.

Hannigan’s own view opposes this. His view is that his agency has the right to acquire any information it seeks. He believes that government has the right to spy on anyone at anytime. These are the opposing views: privacy vs spying.

The encouraging thing about Hannigan’s article is that he accepts the majority view: there is a right to privacy. The worrying aspect is that he attempts to overthrow that right. The assertion that “privacy has never been an absolute right” is an attempt to deny the very concept of privacy. Privacy is an absolute if it is to be a right — if it is not absolute it does not exist.

This is Hannigan’s first public utterance since his accession. He is defining his standpoint. That standpoint is that GCHQ has a right to spy, and that business has a duty to be complicit in that spying. He believes that government opinion is superior to public opinion. If his argument succeeds, then there is no such thing as a human right at all since ‘rights’ (the majority viewpoint) can simply be ignored by a minority viewpoint.

For the moment, as a believer in the concept of privacy, I am encouraged by two things. Firstly, business is at least publicly denying his right to demand their assistance in spying:

But the head of a leading industry group tech UK representing 860 companies employing more than half a million people in Britain rejected the idea and said any new moves should instead be based on a “clear and transparent legal framework”.
The Telegraph: Tech giants reject GCHQ boss Robert Hannigan’s call for deal with government

Secondly, our youth (perhaps ‘privacy’s’ Achilles heel since it has grown up with the concept of social media sharing) is showing remarkable maturity. The European Union is developing a Youth Manifesto. Public voting on proposals has now closed. The results show that the following proposals all received more than 200 votes:

  • We want free access to the internet to help us learn. (311)
  • We want (to be able) to protect our data and privacy online. (212)
  • We want the right to be forgotten online. (208)

While the majority of proposals received between 100 and 200 votes, the following received less than 100:

  • Online service providers should take more responsibility for educating their users. (96)
  • We need education on new ways to communicate online in a responsible way. (95)
  • Parents need education to better support their children online. (91)
  • We want our parents to communicate with us and understand our online experiences, creating mutual trust and confidence. (92)
  • We need to take responsibility for our own actions online. (93)
  • We should be encouraged to use the internet in a creative way. (88)
  • We want more effective technical solutions for keeping us safe online. (86)

What this shows is that today’s youth is voting for freedom and privacy, and rejecting imposed control and spying. And for so long as the majority view is that freedom is more important than control, and that privacy is more important than spying, freedom and privacy will be an absolute right, and control and spying will not.

Those who demand privacy must stand firm against Hannigan’s subversive arguments; and always remember that ‘might’ may be ‘right’; but government ‘might’ is not a ‘right’ (unless we allow it).


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Submitted in: Expert Views, Kevin Townsend's opinions, News, News_politics, News_privacy, News_surveillance | Tags: , , , , ,