The Times reported today that social networking sites might be tracked by the police and various security forces (in the UK) as part of the ongoing attempts to keep up with potential terrorists. This comes on top of reports that existing and planned databases kept for “security purposes” are likely “insecure” by nature of their sheer volume, and have prompted protest about ever-shrinking privacy and questions of efficacy.
At the core of this debate, and many similar ones like it (as the proposed, and much-maligned, minimum price per unit of alcohol) is that the vast majority of people affected are not the ones ultimately targeted. While most people are not terrorists or teenaged alcoholics, they are dragged in as the net is cast wide.
While the alcohol price minimum likely would not have been noticed by your average drinker (because your average drinker is already shelling out a couple extra bob for a slightly nicer plonk or brew), the ‘big brother’ syndrome of law enforcement has the potentially wide-reaching side effect of catching the small fish, making for statistical improvements, while the big fish escape as they have the means and the motivation to try and outsmart the system.
Yes, it’s all well and good to say that the innocent have nothing to fear, as they have nothing to hide, but is it fair to tar all of England with the same brush, because a handful are sociopaths with a death wish?
But then again, what choice is there? How do you track and capture and prove the culpability of people who just don’t play by the same rules?
The difficulty with terrorists is, of course, that they tend not to dress in easily identifiable uniforms, and target exclusively military combatants on a chosen field of battle vying for physical space and/or resources. What they are aiming for (or what their directors are aiming for, as it’s reasonable to assume that the ones doing the damage are the pawns) is an ideological success – an influence on culture from the ground up, winning over the ever elusive “minds and hearts”, or at least sufficient power inspired by fear to establish control over general behavior and social practice.
If all this data is gathered, who looks through it? Are programs run to track suspicious characters (and how is that measured)? What counts as proof? What if someone simply used Facebook to vent some hyperbolic or sarcastic bigotry – would the legal system be able to tell the difference? What if that person was from the Middle East? Would they even have recourse to the justice system?
Privacy is a slippery thing, especially when the current zeitgeist is for perpetual oversharing and constant updates. Do we have a right to privacy? Or has technology, culture, and global politics brought us to a point where our lives must all be open books?