Why we should not be complacent about access to metedata

9_anne_frank_beeld_-_WLM_2011_-_drobmThe government’s argument for further access to metadata rests on two pillars:

  1. It’s necessary to fight the bad guys
  2. There’s nothing to be concerned about if you’re doing nothing wrong

If the revelations from the raft of documents released by Edward Snowdon tells us anything it is that the US, UK and Australian governments have been sifting through every bit of electronic communication in the world for decades. They’ve been doing it in some cases legally, but in many cases illegally or at least without clear authority. And yet that has not made the world safer. So why on earth would letting them do the same stuff legally change the results? Those advocating for further access seem, with some validity, to think that we’ve forgotten about the Snowdon revelations. I fear that the deluge of those revelations has simply inured us to any sense of surprise.

What I find more worrying though is the idea that there’s nothing to worry about if you’re doing nothing wrong. This is another rubbish argument that entirely ignores both fact and history. Try running that argument with the Jews living in wonderfully well-organised Netherlands in 1940 when the occupying Germans used the Dutch record-keeping to such effective ends in tracking down communists, Jews and others:

This high death toll had a number of reasons. One was the excellent state of Dutch civil records: the Dutch state, before the war, had recorded substantial information on every Dutch national. This allowed the Nazi regime to determine easily who was Jewish (whether fully or partly of Jewish ancestry) simply by accessing the data.

You see the basic idea that you have nothing to worry about if you’re doing nothing wrong, fails utterly if the definition of ‘wrong’ changes. What if the government decides to make it illegal to protest against tax changes, to be homosexual, to… whatever. The argument should not rest upon anyone’s capacity to suggest a viable misuse of power – power will be misused. Again the Snowdon records and many others tell us that our Governments are quite willing to step outside the bounds of the law already so why would we trust current or future government to always do the right thing.

Standing up and saying that allowing our government further access to our private information is not an indication of doing wrong. It is something we should all be doing simply because it is something we can safely do now. Our children may not have that luxury.

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