When you sign up on Facebook, you are asked to provide your personal information (name, address, email, etc.). At the end of the page, it is mentioned that Facebook won’t leak your personal data to any third party. But, in reality, it has been alleged that Facebook (and other networking giants) are providing data to the US government, without making it known to the users, apparently for the sake of the country’s security.
Here come the questions of privacy, security, the power of the internet and multi-nation giants. With the emancipation of the internet, a new set of problems and opportunities have arisen in the world. This, in turn, has shaped a new debate about possible government intervention in data and personal privacy.
The question arises: why, when and where should the government meddle with your personal data? Here, there are two poles of the debate:
Opinion 1: Does the government have legitimate rights to interfere with a person’s data for the sake of the nation’s security?
Opinion 2: If the government can intervene with such data for the sake of the nation’s security, what would be the relevance of liberalism that we have been celebrating for the past few decades?
Those adhering to the notion of data security by the government claim that even though people have phones, online accounts and personal liberty, these amount to nothing in the face of the nation’s constitutional provisions and its security concerns. This means that in the name of terrorism, criminal records, money laundering, the government can sue anyone.
Additionally, they claim that with widespread connectivity between people around the globe, the level of racial, religious and cultural connectivity has also risen to new heights. In his cutting-edge essay, “The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order”, Samuel Huntington mentions that the cultural and religious identities of people will be the main source of conflict in the post-Cold War world. The issue is especially relevant, since it has blended with the advantages of connectivity around the world.
In fact, according to an article published in The Guardian on February 22, 2015, the chances of becoming radicalised through the internet are much higher than being radicalised in places of worship. It is no wonder that the authority claims, that radicalisation has spread rapidly through the use of social media.
Many activists are doubtful whether the data captured by the government can remain safe forever. They ask what’s the guarantee that the information won’t fall into the wrong hands. They even claim that to uproot any dictatorial government, the free flow of information is a must.
Social media and the free flow of information have both played major roles, during the Cold War and the Arab Spring. In fact, social media has become the new political battlefield. Here, no politicians are the ultimate winners. Whenever there is a sense of public disarray expressed through social media, politicians rush to address it immediately.
To save virtual data of users, encryption could be useful. The technique is very useful in translating data into secret codes, which can later be unencrypted by secret keys or passwords. Some even believe that governments intentionally use malwares or spying tools to extract data from people.
These days, in the realm of geopolitics, many countries are also using such tools to counter their foes. The alleged cyber-attacks by China on the US and Russian hacking activities during the US elections are some recent examples.
In recent times, the issue has grown much deeper, and we are faced with some deeply uncomfortable questions:
1. Who is ultimately responsible for handling personal data online? Is it a company, the government or a group of people?
2. If all personal data online is encrypted, then who should have the key to unencrypt it?
3. Is it beneficial to hand over encrypted data to a company, a government or a group of people?
There are several examples where governments, companies and groups of people have used technology vivaciously:
1. Drones use infrared cameras, GPS and lasers. They are controlled either by a remote control system or a ground cockpit.
In recent times, technology has won over social problems. For example, the Department for International Development (DFID) funded drones to supply blood and medicines to mothers and babies in rural Tanzania. Indeed, this has evolved into a cutting-edge technology in our fight against diseases and medical emergencies.
2. Flightradar24.com is an aviation database. It is updated in real time with information about 150,000 flights, 7000 airports, 500,000 aircraft, and 1000 airlines.
3. Avaaz.org is an online citizen-based movement committed to making a change. Avaaz uses the tools of social media, online petitions and online campaigns to address social problems.
According to the Freedom House Report on “Freedom on the Net 2016”, the level of internet freedom has declined for a sixth consecutive year. More governments have started censoring information for the public and increased surveillance on them by using privacy tools.
According to the list, the top three countries with free internet are Estonia, Iceland and Canada, while the top three countries with partly-free internet freedom are Brazil, Colombia and Nigeria. The countries which have performed the worst (with no free internet) are China, Syria and Iran.
Why have government authorities started to censor the internet freedom of the public masses? Why has there been a series of crackdowns on online activists? The rise of the right wing, radicalisation, unemployment, mistrust in democracy and the global political crisis might be some of the reasons.
However, the rise of internet connectivity has made globalisation more participatory, with the world witnessing a much faster growth. Why then is the government still so obsessed with online data? Can artificial intelligences (AIs) solve the data management issues of the world? Or are there other ways to solve this crisis? Brainstorming seems to be the need of the hour!