What David Cameron doesn’t get: the difference between privacy and secrecy

My colleague Julia Powles has a terrific essay in Wired on the implications of, and fallout from, the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in which she says this:

Cameron claims that there should be “no safe spaces for terrorists to communicate”. What he expects in technical and legal terms is unclear, but the sentiment is stark: no safe spaces for “them”, means none for us. Security is cast as the ultimate law and first priority, while privacy is something for bad people to hide bad things. In truth, privacy is fundamental to all of us, individually and collectively. It is the foundation of trust, relationships, and intellectual freedom. It is a core tenet of a free and healthy society — security’s ally, not its enemy.

It’s strange how the political establishment in most democracies now seem unable to distinguish between secrecy and privacy. Privacy — as Cory Doctorow observed last week on Radio 4’s Start the Week programme — is the ability to control what other people know about you. It’s the state of being unobserved. Secrecy is the act of keeping things hidden for various reasons, some of which may be legitimate — and some conceivably not. We are all entitled to privacy — it’s a human right. Secrecy is a different thing altogether.

She goes on to remind readers that Cameron’s political assertions

are propped up by a formidable line-up of security officials from MI5, MI6, and the ISC, who have been notably more vocal in the last two weeks than at any moment in the last two years. They echo the tone set by the GCHQ director and Metropolitan police commissioner in November. It is only if we can get at everybody’s communications data, they claim, that we can tackle the terrorist problem. But mass data collection, the necessary precursor to recent and proposed laws, can be shown mathematically to make it more difficult to catch terrorists, plus it has a very significant and irrecoverable environmental cost. It is in clear breach of human rights. It also creates unnecessary, unwanted, and costly data storage — and, with it, new vulnerabilities to malevolent actors that far outnumber plausible terrorist threats. What works, by contrast, is well-resourced, targeted intelligence, complemented by strategies directed at mitigating the causes of disaffection and social unrest.

Well worth reading in full.