I’m one of the many Android users who recently installed the Blackberry Messenger (BBM) application on their phone. Big deal. Doing this as I did, however, on the day Germany and Brazil were introducing a draft resolution on the Right to Privacy in the Digital Age at the UN General Assembly, I found myself confronting some critical questions.
The BBM app — as is the case with most apps — is uncompromising about what it intends to do once it is on your device. It will “modify or delete the contents of your USB storage” and map your “precise GPS location”.
More frighteningly, it can “record audio, take pictures and videos” without seeking your permission. It can also “add or remove accounts, create accounts and set passwords”. Then, quite unapologetically, it can also “add or modify calendar events and send emails to guests without owners’ knowledge, modify your contacts, read calendar events plus confidential information … ”.
Of course, I told the app that “I Accept” these conditions. Either that or nothing.
With this app and a host of others, however, I basically have in my palm a very effective spy-tool that knows my every movement, every sound and image around me 24/7. And it has my full consent!
This is a trap most people are either wittingly or unwittingly walking into in this era of “smart” technological devices. With sound — or what appears to be sound — justification at that.
My Android phone is nothing but efficient. The phone seems to know and understand me in ways that surprise me at times. For instance, I’m an email junkie, preferring to do most of my work via email. Over the past two years, my phone has become so clued up on the way I write emails that I can practically write an email in a matter of seconds by simply following the text predictions!
I’m also a frequent traveller. No problem. A few days ahead of my trip, I get weather notifications and recommendations of hotels and restaurants, based on what the phone knows I prefer. On the actual day of travel, I get traffic and weather updates and the quickest route from my home to the airport is mapped out.
All this is remarkable and quite useful. Unfortunately, it is coming at a significant personal cost to my personal privacy. In the hands of a rogue individual, company or state, my phone — a trusted and dependable device — can turn out to be my worst enemy.
Indeed, the existence of legislation that enables governments to intercept communications of all citizens means that our vulnerabilities to state power, hackers etc are permanent.
Hence, in the absence of stronger safeguards, adequate legal protections and comprehensive knowledge of privacy rights, the unsuspecting and ambivalent use of various technologies may be doing us more harm than good.
In light of revelations made by whistleblower Edward Snowden that there’s an on-going global mass surveillance programme run by the National Security Agency of the United States, the broader question that needs to be asked, perhaps, is this: Is the right to freedom — especially freedom of expression — as a human right under threat?
The overarching justification for mass surveillance and limitation of human rights is, of course, the protection of national security. Colleague and friend Carly Nyst of Privacy International has eloquently put this debate into perspective, arguing that: “Under the guise of national security, privacy [and the right to freedom of expression are] gradually being dismantled by laws and technologies that enable government intrusion into our emails, internet activities, phone calls, movements, interactions and relationships. We are told by our governments that surveillance is there to make us safer. Yet there is little evidence that forfeiting our privacy gains us greater security.”
Beyond the role of the state in curtailing fundamental human rights, we also need to question the role of corporate entities whose hardware and software we use and have come to depend upon. To what extend do Google, Yahoo!, Facebook and Twitter, among others, infringe on our rights to freedom of expression and privacy?
Indeed, isn’t the narrative that these platforms actually enhance those rights flawed and designed, in particular, to increase the shareholder value of the companies while doing the exact opposite?
Many African countries are awakening to the power of internet-powered technology. Regrettably, the popular stance has been to view the internet as an inherent threat to the state. A certain Zimbabwean minister once described the internet as “a tool for regime change”.
The African Union has a “Draft [AU] Convention on the Confidence and Security in Cyberspace”, which, among other things, notes that “Africa is faced with security gap[s] which, as a result of poor mastery of security risks, increases the technological dependence of individuals, organizations and states on computer systems and networks that tend to control their information technologies needs and security facilities. [Hence] African states are in dire need of innovative criminal policy strategies that embody states, societal and technical responses to create a credible legal climate for cybersecurity.”
Confining the debate on internet freedom to narrow “national security” concerns as most governments are doing or intend do means that freedom of expression and privacy rights will lose out quite significantly.
The laissez faire attitude, in general, that has accompanied Snowden’s revelations and the promulgation of legislation or policies that considerably affect our online lives is deeply telling of the voluntary servitude we are lending to state power and technology companies by sheepishly clicking “I Accept” — like I did — without demanding adequate protection for ourselves.
The draft resolution on the Right to Privacy in the Digital Age is a step in the right direction. However, there remains greater need for more robust citizen/consumer engagement if the rights enjoyed offline can also be enjoyed online in equal measure.