Security Versus Privacy in Tech Age

By Masimba Biriwasha | OpEd | December 29, 2013

When you make a telephone call, just remember you’re not alone. It’s not really a surprise, when you’re on a telephone network, you can never be sure who is listening in.

In the US, there is a growing storm over revelations that the government harvests information about every telephone call to, from or within the country. That information otherwise known as “metadata”, includes the phone numbers involved, when the calls were made and how long they lasted.

It’s a pretty daunting and amazingly breathtaking task at best. At worst, it invokes images of Orwellian prying. Think, Big Brother is watching you.

The rationale is to prevent acts of terrorism, either in the US or somewhere else in the world. By sifting through huge troves of telephony metadata, patterns can emerge and suspects hunted down or preventive actions put in place, so the argument goes.

In the era of big data, it is becoming increasingly difficult where to draw the lines between personal privacy and security. US’ National Security Agency’s collection of huge troves of telephony metadata in the name of security revealed by the agency’s estranged contractor Edward Snowden hits at the nerve of how much government snooping ought to be in line with civil liberty, in this case, the right to privacy.

While the idea of maintaining security is noble, what is frightening is the “unknown unknowns” which the data can be used for. The bulk storage of telephone records by the government is antithetical to privacy, and without privacy there can be no democracy.

As the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, succinctly put it: “Without the right of privacy, there is no real freedom of speech or freedom of opinion, and so there is no actual democracy.”

The ultimate challenge is not so much that the US government should not collect information but how to define the parameters of how this is done. Is it necessary for government to engage in what New York Times refers to as ” … a daily, indiscriminate sweep of hundred of millions of phone records?” Or should that data be kept by private providers or by a private third party and only accessed if there is a court order.

At the least, there is a debate about this in the US but one shudders to think what some pariah states with call-log technologies can do to silence opponents and further aggrandize their powerbases all in the name of maintaining security.

Whatever the case, it is clear that advances in technology – instead of furthering progress – have a potential to erode human freedoms that we have for long taken for granted.