the wider implications of interception (“hacking”)

The News of the World “phone hacking” story looks set to run for some time to come. The tale of how journalists and corrupt policemen apparently colluded to break the law and access private data spotlights a mix of issues – from how easily trusted insiders, such as the police, seem able to access and leak sensitive information to how easy it is for anyone to access modern technology, such as voicemail, when owners forget to change their security settings.

Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that the government was looking to routinely intercept all of our communications anyway, with proposals such as the intercept modernisation programme (IMP). Collecting and collating such a wealth of our personal data raises many questions, not least the issue of corrupt insiders having access to an abundant wealth of personal information which they might misuse. The NOTW case is yet more evidence of just how real the threat of  insider abuse is.

Modern technologies can offer the potential either to protect, or erode, our traditional freedoms. For example, the act of gathering citizens’ personal information and storing it in ever larger state-run IT systems, even if intended “for the better good”, can result in technology delivering the very opposite outcome, undermining the UK’s historic civil liberties and ultimately placing both citizens and the state at greater risk. There are better ways to design systems and technology than this, and I’m concerned that lessons are not being learned or applied in this important area as rigorously as they should be.

In my role as a Director of the CTPR, this is an area I want explored in more detail. So I’m going to work with associates and other experts in the field to consider these issues from a technology policy perspective rather than a legal one. I hope this will produce some insights that can make a significant impact, bringing the UK’s approach to technology policy in these important areas into closer alignment with the UK’s traditional legal framework. Well-designed technology should help protect and safeguard our traditional rights and freedoms, rather than undermine them.

Watch this space. And if you have ideas or facts to contribute, please do so.

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