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Is it possible that the Snowden revelations have become bad news for privacy?

130614174418-t-ts-how-hide-nsa-00000000-620x348By Simon Davies

In some respects, 2013 was a landmark year for privacy awareness. Never before has so much attention been paid at a global level to privacy issues, and rarely has privacy moved so swiftly into the public policy mainstream.

That said, we shouldn’t confuse activity with progress. The outlook for privacy reform, globally, appears increasingly bleak, with only occasional patches of brightness. Despite the heat and light generated by the Snowden revelations – or possible because of them – only a tiny sliver of privacy concerns are being addressed, and then by only a small minority of countries.

Snowden: could his iconic status have damaged privacy reform?

Snowden: could his iconic status have damaged privacy reform?

Privacy specialists may not wish to instinctively support this view, but they would probably admit – notable exceptions aside –  that little progress has been made in the face of increasingly intrusive measures by the private and public sector.

To consider whether the Snowden disclosures have created an overall global drag on privacy isn’t such a contentious notion. The Arab Spring has created some positive outcomes, but one disastrous effect has been a knee-jerk response by authoritarian governments of many other countries.

The focus of public activity over recent months has been the United States, but even there the privacy debate has centred almost solely on the narrow ambit of the NSA – and of late, on the even more narrow aspects of phone record collection and judicial process. In stark terms, that’s maybe a half of one percent of the overall global privacy landscape that may be partially resolved. Of equal importance to the vast majority of people are the largely overlooked domains of spiraling law enforcement powers, international cooperation, regulatory failure, commercial neglect and local government thuggery.

The NSA aspects being debated in the US are of course important issues, but the governments of most countries – even those with a direct operational involvement in the NSA web – have done little or nothing to shed light on their own spy agencies. The Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and many other countries simply refuse to formally acknowledge that there are urgent issues that require public debate. In most of these countries there is no policy movement whatever.

Despite the heat and light generated by the Snowden revelations – or possible because of them – only a tiny sliver of privacy concerns are being addressed, and then by only a small minority of countries.

While it’s true that the NSA is the spider in the global surveillance web, the danger in the present dialogue is that it largely ignores both the web itself and its deputy spider, Britain’s GCHQ. The world outside the United States has been almost entirely side-stepped.

President Obama’s task force into the NSA revelations provides evidence of this paralysis. Both the task force’s report and Obama’s subsequent speech offer little or no substantive reform to the core international agreements that form the basis of global spying operations. Nor do they offer any meaningful safeguards for people outside the US.

Even in the UK (apart from reporting by the Guardian and one or two other publications) there is little or no serious dialogue about reform. Convincing the heads of Britain’s three main spy agencies to sit like Mo, Larry and Curly for an hour in a glorified photo-shoot to answer pre-agreed questions from the parliament’s oversight committee hardly passes as a commitment to change.

But even if we were to take the optimistic line that national security operations – in the long run – will be forced to partially clean up their act, what about the vast swathes of the privacy spectrum that remain out of sight and largely out of control?

Sadly, there is almost no good news in the areas of financial privacy, identity systems, online blocking and filtering, border control, data protection, cloud computing, law enforcement, competition issues, corporate governance, freedom of Information, genetics, health privacy, junk marketing, online advertising, online privacy, social networking and travel privacy.

The governments of most countries – even those with a direct operational involvement in the NSA web – have done little or nothing to shed light on their own spy agencies.

Sure, civil liberties advocates in the United States have every right to feel at least a little jubilant about the disinfectant of sunshine being applied to the American security apparatus. Even beyond the revelations in the Snowden documents, testimony and public statements from officials is slowly revealing the NSA’s true value to the world – and it’s a value that appears to be narrower than previously imagined.

In the bigger scheme of things, however, little is happening on the privacy front. Europe’s proposed data protection framework appears to have collapsed for the moment, although on a more cheery note there is some limited movement on reform of the discredited EU-US data transfer arrangements (known as Safe Harbour).

There’s a phenomenon in media that we might label the displacement reporting effect, in which editors choose to de-prioritise content on the basis of a claimed public fatigue on extensively reported issues. In this case the Snowden, extensive revelations can come at the price of reduced reporting of issues that are not immediately connected to national security.

Privacy can be a complex policy issue, but – even more so than before – the media bar has been set much higher to require personification. We might ask how in the future will it be possible to achieve media penetration without the existence of dramatis persona. More important, while the involvement of a personality as a device to raise awareness is sometimes useful, it can also create a damaging polemic in the public mind.

This shouldn’t imply that reform isn’t possible. It’s just that there seems relatively little interest in those other areas, and consequently limited pressure to curtail the growth and deployment of new methods of privacy invasion.

None of this should be cause for total despair. An important foundation has been laid which, in time, may spark a broader interest in protections. To help achieve this outcome, all privacy advocates need to stop celebrating the occasional narrow win from Snowden and start focusing more aggressively on the bigger picture of reform.