Imagine being able to search over the full text of pages you’ve visited online and finding that one particular quote you remember reading somewhere months ago… Imagine always knowing exactly where you saw something online, like that priceless YouTube video of your friend attempting to perform dance moves from a bygone age.
Now, there are many reasons why this is an excellent development: for one thing, it provides (at last!) a cure for internesia. But, obviously, there has to be a balance: if anyone (or everyone) else could have access to your Web History, life might be rather different.
But what about at work? Should my employer have access to the Web History? If I’m using the web at work, then surely a responsible employer should monitor it? What if I’m up to no good? But wait a minute, what if the employer is up to no good? Surely we would want responsible employees to be able to research, communicate and blow the whistle if necessary? This is a good reason for making sure that corporate digital identities come with a cryptographically-blinded companion identity, so that the nurse in a hospital can report a drunk surgeon: it is critical to the report that she is proved to be a nurse at hospital, but equally critical that her identity cannot be discovered (otherwise she might not make the report at all. Whatever your business, whether you have pictures showing prisoners being abused, knowledge of murders committed by a police informant or evidence of youngsters being exposed to hazardous chemicals, you need to find a way to expose the wrongdoing without getting fired (or shot): a Pentagon official says that whistleblowers have to have complete anonymity to have effective protection. Society needs to find a way to provide this.
I happened to be thinking about this “whisteblowing” aspect of the privacy and surveillance balance because of an obviously incorrect deduction in a story about this which said that dishonesty by staff in blue-chip companies seems to be becoming more prevalent, thanks in part to secret filming by, for example, BBC’s Whistleblowers series. This is absurd. Surely it is the existence of whistleblowers that reveals more dishonesty: it does not mean there is more dishonesty, only that it is being exposed because of surveillance technology (not Big Brother, but Little Sister). If anything, the technology ought to mean that there is less dishonesty, because the chances of getting caught are so much higher in a world of camera phones, digital dictation machines and web cams.
Talking about dilemmas of privacy and surveillance, I’ll be speaking at the BCS Information Privacy Day in London on July 11th, so look forward to seeing you there.
These opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]