The United Nation’s first-ever privacy chief has expressed concern over attitudes to data privacy by governments, corporations and even citizens, arguing that a Geneva Convention for the internet is required.
Joseph Cannataci, a professor of technology law at University of Groningen in the Netherlands and head of the department of Information Policy & Governance at the University of Malta, was appointed as the UN special rapporteur on privacy earlier this year.
Speaking in an interview with The Guardian, he said the extent of internet and communications surveillance, combined with the expanding use of connected devices, means that privacy often isn’t viewed as a concern.
His comments come shortly after the United Nations told member states they must respect its right to privacy following allegations that telecoms operator AT&T helped the US National Security Agency (NSA) spy on the UN – despite a previous pledge from the US that it wouldn’t.
However, it’s Britain that Cannataci singled out as one of the worst offenders when it comes to spying on its own citizens, arguing that it is “worse” than what Orwell wrote about in his novel 1984.
“If you look at CCTV alone, at least Winston [Smith] was able to go out in the countryside and go under a tree and expect there wouldn’t be any screen, as it was called.
“Whereas today there are many parts of the English countryside where there are more cameras than George Orwell could ever have imagined. So the situation in some cases is far worse already,” he said.
He continued: “The way we handle it is going to be the difference. But Orwell foresaw a technology that was controlling. In our case we are looking at a technology that is ever-developing, and ever-developing possibly more sinister capabilities.”
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden recently accused the British government of attempting to flout the privacy of citizens by secretly passing legislation that allows GCHQ to “hack anybody’s computer”.
Cannataci described the Snowden revelations about government surveillance as “very important” because they confirmed what many privacy experts thought was the case.
“Snowden will continue to be looked upon as a traitor by some and a hero by others. But in actual fact his revelations confirmed to many of us, who have been working in this field for a long time, what has been going on and the extent to which it has got out of control,” he said.
In his role as UN special rapporteur on privacy, Cannataci has the task of reviewing government policies on the interception of digital communications and assist them in developing best practice under the rule of law in what he suggests should become a Geneva Convention for the internet and privacy.
Cannataci’s role will also see him attempting to tackle the business models of big corporations, which are “very often taking the data that you never even knew they were taking”, and using cutting-edge big data analysis to glean new insights into people’s lives.
While Cannataci suggested that much of the blame lies with these companies for thinking that they are above the law because “they just went out and created a model where people’s data has become the new currency”, he argued that people need to be more cautious about signing away their digital rights.
“Unfortunately, the vast bulk of people sign their rights away without knowing or thinking too much about it,” he said.