While an individual’s privacy must, in appropriate circumstances, give way to matters of public interest such as safety, law enforcement and security, what recent events have shown us is that some governments have stretched the boundaries of “appropriate” so far that they have snapped. Legal concepts such as “necessary”, “proportionate” and “reasonable” have been effectively rendered meaningless by surveillance programs that:
- collect wholesale Internet user data (including metadata) without due regard to individuals’ rights and expectations of privacy;
- lack proper independent and transparent judicial oversight;
- are no more than “fishing expeditions”; and/or
- fail to respect internationally-recognised state sovereignty.
While such surveillance programs may be said to comply with the letter of the law or an interpretation that is maintained to allow such programs to exist, they run contrary to fundamental ethical principles regarding what is just and fair. If law can be made to allow such programs or if law cannot prevent it, a strong statement of internationally agreed ethical principles must fill the gap and curtail the practice.
It is time that data trawlers hang up their nets and learn handline fishing.
Let 2014 be the year that the global community unites to:
- confine the ambit of data collection for national security purposes to those truly exceptional instances where the public interest objectively outweighs an individual’s right to privacy; and
agree a set of strong principles for ethical data handling in the national security community.