Dunne Speaks: Challenges to Privacy in the Digital Era

In the wake of last weekend’s horrific terrorist attacks in Paris many are asking fresh questions about what new steps can be taken to curb outrages committed by Daesh extremists and their like. Western intelligence agencies have already warned these types of attacks are likely to become more commonplace, and, as if to reinforce their relevance, have judiciously revealed details of similar projected incidents that have been thwarted already. Countries like France and Russia have stepped up their bombings of suspected sites in Syria and Iraq. And, generally, people in Europe particularly, and elsewhere besides are that much more on edge than a week ago.

There have been warnings that cyber attacks may replace physical attacks, with dramatic potential consequences for things like air traffic control or the international financial system. Given increasing global inter connectivity this is potentially the greatest threat of all. Moreover, it comes at a time when governments are becoming more committed to the delivery of services on line to their citizens, and in their dealings with each other. Ironically, rather than closer global co-operation being a way of enhancing common security, it may actually become a threat to it.

It is against this background that the D5 Summit is taking place this week in Tallin, Estonia. The D5 (comprising Britain, New Zealand, Estonia, Korea and Israel – the five leading countries in terms of online government services) was formed last year to promote digital government and greater co-operation between governments in providing services digitally. For the Estonians, probably the most advanced government in this space, it was a no-brainer: when the Soviet Union fell in the early 1990s Estonia was left with virtually no physical infrastructure, and so a move to digital was a logical step. Now, virtually every government service there, including voting in elections, can be accessed through one’s mobile phone. The drivers for digitisation were different in both Korea and Israel where national security has been the obvious focus. In the case of Britain and New Zealand, delivering public services more conveniently and at a time of people’s choosing has been the dominant influence. The D5’s focus is not on global security, but on the delivery of joined-up government services on line.

In short, the D5 looks to the positive use of cyberspace to facilitate governments’ interactions with their own citizens, and with other governments. (The recent agreement that Australia’s Justice Minister and I announced about sharing cyber data to prevent identity theft is a good example of the type of inter-governmental co-operation we envisage.)

Inevitably, the recent outrages and their consequences will intensify the pressure for greater intelligence sharing, and potentially more surveillance of citizens as the price to pay to preserve public order. (Wryly, the business maxim that doing more of the same just produces more of the same old results seems never to apply when it comes to intelligence agencies and the exercise of what they quaintly refer to as their craft, but be that as it may.) While that may be an understandable, if not condonable short-term reaction, it cannot be allowed to prevail. (Churchill’s wartime warning about “perverted science” leading to a “new dark age” is worth recalling here.) The D5’s challenge is to ensure that its positive vision for cyber connection and co-operation is not subsumed by the short-term exigencies we currently face, and that the idea of more on-line government remains something to be relished, not feared.

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