Big Brother is watching all the time – Private and public surveillance is ubiquitous

Catch 22, a satirical novel published 1961 and written by Joseph Heller, tells a story about logical irrationality. You are dead if you do something, and you are dead if you don’t.

It is the same with privacy. Public surveillance wants to protect you and your country, but most people think that your secrets and privacy are cherished rights, and that should limit surveillance from being too intrusive. However, you privacy is being watched over by the private sector and criminals sometimes and they are making fat profits from that.

We all agree that public surveillance can only be used when a person is objectively suspected of having committed a crime should. Privacy proponents and privacy groups scream from the mountain tops that we must always stop the government and the military from spying on us. A lot of good jobs are handed out to privacy specialists these days, partly because of government surveillance, partly because Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and many others rake in huge profits from selling your personal data to advertisers.

Data and the collection thereof need to be regulated, and more importantly, people need to understand how it is being used. Few consider or even understand what happens to our really private data, including the history of our payments, location data and contacts in the hands of private companies.

Stolen data. Private data is really easy to steal or lose, incurring substantial costs for you and partners. You all carry around lots of of information in your pocket or purse. Wallets, smart phones, tablets and laptops are full of data. Losing a device through carelessness or theft can be very expensive and result in a huge hassle. Criminal can also scan credit cards at an ATM, in a restaurant, shop or gas station, and that stolen credit card data is then sold or used online to buy stuff.

We know where you live. Tracking information is already almost automatically public, and certainly compiled and analysed by private companies who sell the data onward to third parties. Your smart phone and your laptop all have IP addresses and most phones have GPS tracking turned on, or can be pinpointed via triangulation (the stuff they do in the films).

Don’t try to deny that you were not there – it’s all on the record! That information cannot be collected by the surveillance folk, the telephone operator, Mr. Apple, the Koreans (Samsung phones), the Chinese (Huawei phones) who all know exactly where you are and have been carrying your smartphone.

You are never alone: they can spot you sitting on a plane, in a car, or on a train. Airlines routinely collect a lot of information about you, just like the shops and internet sites you visit. Cameras register your car movements, and you are often filmed by CCTV walking down a busy street. Those cameras collect your facial details, deliver them to a supercomputer deep under the city, and up pops your criminal record.

Express lawmaking. Finland’s new Surveillance Law is now going to Parliament. The Finnish Military, the Secret Service (Supo) and the Police all want better access to the internet and phone networks because under the present law they cannot do any surveillance (1) outside Finland, (2) if they do not know the name of the spy, criminal or terrorist, or, (3) if no crime has yet been committed. That is unacceptable in today’s world, and, at last, it is being changed by the new law.

The new law does not explicitly allow outright mass surveillance (although law experts lament vague legal phrasings which open up for wide interpretations), and in most cases a court order or similar senior officer must authorise surveillance. The surveillance results will be always reviewed during and after it occurs by some senior and responsible body.

In my mind, the expanded powers sought by the military, Supo and the police appear reasonable. Keeping down crime via surveillance – which however should include checks and balances, democratically controlled limits to the power of the watchmen – is cheaper than having dangerous criminals walking around stealing property and lives.

We pay our taxes for security and that cost must be kept within strict limits, because it is far more important that we have good education, good healthcare and good public transport and transport networks. Remember that you will be old one day, and may sit in wet nappies, eating poor food, alone in a dark cold apartment with some care worker appearing twice a day for five minutes: not a very attractive prospect. This is already a reality for many hundreds (probably thousands) of older folk – many, many more than will ever be killed by criminals, and religious fanatics.

In the end we have to trust that the cops will do an honest job which is more that can be said about those not very reliable representatives in those big old building that sit in the middle of every capital city called Parliaments. I sometimes wish that we could see what they are up to in the middle of the night with the cameras and sound turned on!

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