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Exclusive Interview: Oxford Internet Institute Sets Out the Privacy Threats in 2009

By: NMK Created on: April 30th, 2009
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Privacy and identity protection online is of constant concern to Internet users. New Media Knowledge spoke to Dr. Ian Brown of the Oxford Internet Institute to get his diagnosis on the state of Internet privacy in the UK today.

As stories emerged recently that the UK government had potentially colluded with controversial behavioural targeting firm Phorm, NMK decided it was time to revisit the important subject of data protection and identity online. Are UK Internet users any better or worse than this time last year and what will things be like for us in the years to come?

To answer these questions NMK’s Chris Lee caught up with Dr. Ian Brown of the Oxford Internet Institute (OII). The OII describes itself as “devoted to the study of the impact of the Internet on society” and Dr. Brown’s research is primarily focused on public policy issues around information and the Internet, particularly privacy, copyright and e-democracy. In the last decade he has been a trustee of Privacy International, the Open Rights Group and the Foundation for Information Policy Research and an adviser to Greenpeace, Amnesty International and a number of global companies.


Above: Dr. Ian Brown, OII

What’s the current state of identity and privacy? As individuals, are we better protected or more exposed than we were 12 months ago?

The UK government has continued with its large-scale database programme, centralising sensitive personal information such as medical records, details of children's interactions with government, and DNA samples from over 850,000 people never convicted of an offence. Our Database State report for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust contains the full list. Now the Home Office wants to install wiretapping equipment across the Internet. All this from a government that has carelessly lost the personal data of tens of millions of people in the last 18 months.

It seems only intervention by the European Commission (EC) and European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is likely to stop this juggernaut. The EC says our data protection laws don't properly protect privacy and the ECHR has found our DNA database breaches the European Convention on Human Rights (in S & Marper v UK). We are now waiting for the government's response to these rulings.

If it’s worse, why and how worried should we be?

In 2006, Information Commissioner Richard Thomas warned Britons were "waking up to a surveillance society that is already all around us". Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have been actively hostile to privacy, partly in an attempt to portray their political opponents as "weak" on crime. Without a change of government it seems this is only going to get worse.

How does privacy in the UK stack up against other European Union states and the US?

Privacy International found last year that the UK was the worst surveillance state in the EU, on a par with George Bush's US administration. President Obama now has to deal with illegal large-scale wiretapping and surveillance by the US National Security Agency, but seems rather occupied cleaning up after the CIA's torture programme.

What’s your view on Phorm? Is the European Commission likely to be successful in curtailing it?

Phorm has made significant efforts to protect users' privacy, but fundamentally I think its model of profiling users by intercepting their Web browsing sessions is wrong. If users want to receive "targeted" advertising, profiling should be done on their own PCs by software they have full control over. Otherwise the potential for accidental leaks and deliberate government surveillance is too great.

Now that the European Commission has taken the first steps towards legal action in the European Court of Justice, the UK has little choice but to fix its defective privacy laws.

Do you use social networks yourself? If so, what’s your advice on best practice to individuals to avoid compromising data, especially given that some information posted about them may be out of their control?

It's unwise to post information on a social network you would be uncomfortable if read by your boss or parents, let alone millions of people in networks such as Facebook's London group or future employers, insurers or admissions tutors. Most social networks have privacy controls that let you restrict who can see information, even "tags" linking you to photos and videos. Make sure you use them!

What will we be talking about this time next year with regards to identity and privacy?

The competing visions of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties as they fight the next general election, and whether the country can afford to spend £100 billion over the next five years on invasive database projects.


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