On Civil Society, APIs and Privacy

Noteworthy contrasts both sides of the pond re freedom and privacy. In America, Venture Beat reports on the New York Times and an API that opens up data from Congress which,

allows developers to access data about which congresspeople represent which districts, and how they voted on specific issues.

This is all to the good and allows more daylight and fresh air into the well grubbed rooms of Congress.

In stark and grimy contrast the moves in the UK are to delve into our private lives and to examine each and every e-mail and SMS sent by each of us at all times. A Conservative peer from our archaic House of Lords, The Earl of Northesk summed up what this means:

This degree of storage is equivalent to having access to every second, every minute, every hour of your life…People have to worry about the scale, the virtuality of your life being exposed to about 500 public authorities.

Not nice and completely impractical too, not to mention a total waste of time. The Home Office nevertheless believe that it will:

allow investigators to identify suspects, examine their contacts, establish relationships between conspirators and place them in a specific location at a certain time

Leaving aside the salient fact that e-mail is so passe, and more and more communications take place via other media such as this blog, social spaces and other such ‘Web 2.0’ environments; this should be resolutely resisted. We should also reject the ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide’ argument as a spurious escape from a fundamental issue. That issue is I think best summed up with the ideas of Hannah Arendt.

For Arendt there were two spheres here, that of the public the social space of politics and of democracy. This is where debate lives. It is free, it is open and it is democratic, at least in its Ideal. In contrast there is the realm of the oikos, that of the Family of private life. For each to flourish, each needs to be separate. If we lose the privacy of the personal, the unique, the own, then we lose the democracy of the public. They become instead replaced by an amorphous blurring or potential totalitarianism.

We can see what this means by looking at our own society here in Britain. More and more areas of our previously private lives are open to public scrutiny. The result isn’t nice, the ‘nanny-state’ combined with the ‘net-curtain twitcher’ creates a world were we’re we told what to do here re how we bring up our kids, what we eat, how to exercise etc etc. I, personally, think that it’s up to the individual to make those sorts of decisions and that we don’t need someone else to make them for us. They’re private and personal to me and should stay that way.

What can we do to stop the ‘invasion of our privacy’? I’m on Twitter as I write this and it’s being openly discussed there…watch this space.

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