Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Do we really want to give up on privacy?

Robert Hannigan, head of Britain’s GCHQ, the equivalent and partner of America’s NSA and therefore our principal snooping organisation, has declared that there’s no “absolute right” to privacy. Since his organisation has quite a track record for invading privacy, his is probably a remark worth taking seriously.

GCHQ: protecting us. But from itself
At one level, as it happens, I think he’s right. In my view, there is no absolute right to privacy. But that’s because I don’t believe there’s an absolute right to anything. Rights are granted by people to each other or, still more frequently, wrested by one group from another who make every effort to resist them.

Not everyone believes that. People of faith, for example, might well hold that rights are a gift from God. Certainly, the signatories of the US Declaration of Independence seem to have felt that way:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It all flows from the Creator, you see.

On the other hand, I think we’re probably better-advised to be guided by what people do than by what they say. And from that point of view, it’s instructive that the man who drafted the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, was a slave-owner, as were numerous other signatories including, most notably, George Washington.

So I take with a pinch of salt the notion that Liberty is some kind of absolute right. If it were absolute, how could some men (or women) deny it to others? The US founding fathers were apparently able to alienate the allegedly unalienable.

It took a long and bloody war – still the costliest in lives ever fought by American forces – to establish that no one could be enslaved in the US. A hundred years on, it took a bitter struggle to win Civil Rights for the descendants of the freed slaves. Even today, few can pretend that American Blacks enjoy the same degree of liberty as their White compatriots.

All this confirms me in my prejudice that rights aren’t absolute, but have to be fought for and then defended.

So I agree with Hannigan that privacy isn’t an absolute right, any more than any of the others. But, though we agree on the premiss, I draw the opposite conclusion. Precisely because it isn’t absolute, the right to privacy needs to be defended, above all against such as he who would trample it if he could.

His motivation, inevitably, is the fight against terrorism. Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, he claims, are now “command-and-control networks for terrorists”. It is his duty to spy on what’s said on the web to keep us all safe.

’s all the more vital, and all the more difficult, to resist that kind of thinking now that so many seem anxious to give up their rights. As frightened as Hannigan of terrorism, and hostile to Europe, many British voters seems intent on dropping adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights – nasty foreign meddling with good British custom, championed by such as Hannigan. 

Curiously, it’s article 8 of that Convention that guarantees:

…everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life.

Nothing absolute about that guarantee, though. We can give it up, if that’s what we decide we want. But with the likes of Hannigan out there breathing down our necks, is that really what we should wish for?

No comments: