Editorial: The time for global rules on data usage has come

Blanket monitoring  of non-US internet activity will not stop terrorism

Share

For William Hague, the purpose of yesterday’s House of Commons statement was to allay fears that Britain’s security services piggyback on the privacy invasions of their less legally circumscribed US counterparts.

Taking care to give little away, the Foreign Secretary described such suggestions as “baseless” and talked convincingly of a system replete with checks and balances.

But even if our own spies are models of integrity, and our own laws paradigms of privacy-protection, the less stringent standards in the US are hardly less of a cause for concern.

Yes, we live in a dangerous world. Just weeks after the Woolwich murder and the Boston bombing, it would be difficult to maintain otherwise. A degree of privacy is therefore compromised, in the interests of mutual security. But this is no binary choice, it is a balance to be struck; and the latest revelations from the US suggest that the scales have tipped too far.

It is nonsense that the National Security Agency’s blanket monitoring of non-US citizens’ internet activity is necessary to combat terrorism. The majority of attacks are homegrown. Moreover, the fact that the same indiscriminate approach is not applied to US residents indicates Washington is well aware how badly such measures play with voters. But while NSA access to telephone records raised questions for the US, the Prism internet surveillance system raises questions for everyone else. It is also an incidence of gross overreach.

At this stage, there is some dispute about Prism. The companies involved – Google, Facebook, Skype et al – deny that the NSA has access to their servers. But the broader issue remains pertinent regardless of the specifics.

Europe and the US have been at loggerheads over data protection for more than a decade. In the past few months alone, EU proposals for new rules have provoked a storm of protest from US internet giants and warnings of a “trade war” from its diplomats. The latest insights only add fuel to the fire, even more so given that talks are set to start on a groundbreaking EU/US trade pact next month and American technology companies are lobbying for a watering down of the Commission proposals as part of the deal.

Much as trade liberalisation is to be welcomed, Brussels must stick to its guns on matters of privacy. Data hoards that were troubling enough in the context of commercial activity are more unacceptable still when potentially accessible by the US government – or, indeed, any government. Nor is it enough to claim that the innocent have nothing to fear. The internet requires the fundamentals of privacy and ownership to be re-written. These new principles must be clarified in law, not allowed to drift, guided by considerations of national security alone. Such concerns are neither wrong, nor necessarily malevolent; but they are limited.

Even if enough of an agreement can be reached to allow an EU/US deal to go ahead – by drawing a line around matters of national security, perhaps – the problem is unlikely to be solved. With US companies so dominant online, however, they cannot be fudged forever. Indeed, even as we are spooked by foreign ownership of British infrastructure, foreign ownership of vast swathes of personal data – the potential uses of which can barely be imagined – is going ahead largely unchecked.

There is, then, a compelling case for global rules on data usage by which all internet companies would be bound. Such things take time, though. In the meantime, the US must take care not to ruin one of its most successful industries. Internet users may flock to Google and the rest now, but a non-American, NSA-free rival might find itself with a competitive advantage

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Product Owner - Business Analyst

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Product Owner/Business Analyst is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Quality Technician

£28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

Recruitment Genius: Java Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity for an ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Pressure is growing on Chris Grayling to abandon the Government bid to advise Saudi Arabia on running its prisons (Getty)  

What in sanity’s name is Chris Grayling doing in the job of Justice Secretary?

Matthew Norman
Health workers of the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres take part in training  

Are we starting to see the end of Ebola? Not quite, but we're well on our way

Tom Solomon
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea