Databases. Security cameras. IP addresses. These are some of the most popular swear words in the privacy world at the moment, and if you you wait a little longer, add GPS trackers and ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) cameras to the list as well. Privacy groups are convinced that the personal lives of everyone are quickly becoming threatened from the advancements in technology.
However, is technology really being used as a weapon towards our privacy, or is it in fact a vital tool in the solving and prevention of crime, and a way of making life easier?
Today, it seems every part of our lives can be logged, recorded or tracked. If I take the car to the nearest shopping centre, my journey will be logged by cameras on the motorway, sending the car's number plate to a huge database. If I decide to go for a walk in the countryside, all it takes is my mobile phone to be switched on in order for me to be tracked, as all the police need is a mobile number in order to track my phone based on the nearest mobile phone towers. If I decide to do some shopping on the net, that too will be logged, as is every website I visit is logged by my ISP. Pretty creepy. But is it worth it?
Security services used the surveillance features above during the 7 July bombings in London, and being able to use these methods of surveillance was vital in the process of identifying the attackers. CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) cameras often provide evidence that would otherwise leave many crimes unsolvable. However, sometimes our privacy is invaded not just for the sake of crime prevention.
We are giving information to private-sector companies and websites all the time. Sometimes the information is personal, sometimes it's not. But as consumers and users, we rarely put privacy first, and it ends up as a side thought. Unfortunately, it's often the same for companies and websites developers, particularly the latter. Website developers are just that: developers – not lawyers or security advisers. When you submit your information to a website, where does your information go? Does the company destroy your data the moment it's no longer necessary, or do they store it? It is questions like these that need answering, both in the public sector and the private sector.
It's easy to blame other people though. Although the government and other organisations have questions to answer, when it comes to looking after our own information, many of us are far too careless. The problem is that we, as consumers, would rather have convenience over privacy. We'd rather have our browsers be helpful and suggestive based on browser usage from the past, even if it does mean anyone could see what you've been up to on the net for the last week. We'd rather have our social networking privacy settings set so we broadcast our details to a larger range of people, even if it means our data could be in the sight of people we might not be so friendly with. We can't have our cake and eat it; if we want better privacy, we should be prepared to lose some benefits.
The truth is, although the government could do more to look after our personal data, such as updating and enforcing the Data Protection Act, they provide us with plenty of information regarding how to look after our information, including the Freedom of Information Act, allowing us to find out what information a public-sector organisation holds about us, as long as it's not a security risk. The harsh reality is that we, the consumers, need to look after our data. Sure, you can't help being filmed by CCTV cameras in the street, and you can't help having your DNA sample put in the police database on a case, even if you're not found to be guilty. But you can turn up your privacy settings on Facebook so only your closer friends can find your address, and you can configure your browser to only store what it needs to. It's time to up the value of our privacy.