Another week has started with yet another alarming story in the press about how the government plans to snoop on us and our electronic communications. Civil rights bodies such as Big Brother watch are up in arms once again about this attack on our privacy but is it really something we should worry about?
It is very easy for the press to write stories which make us all feel that our every move, every email, Tweet, every Facebook status update, every text message and perhaps even every blog is being watched for signs of subversion.
So I'm here to confess, right now, where this government are concerned, I'm subversive. I re-tweet anti-Tory rhetoric on Twitter. I laughed out loud at the anti-Gove version of Michael Rosen's We're Going on a Bear Hunt circulating on Facebook. I've got a 'Vote Green' sign in the window of my house. But is anybody really watching? Does anyone care? Clearly not about me, I'm just exercising my democratic right to disagree with a government I did not vote for.
But if I was more serious, if I really meant to harm myself or other people in the name of politics and religion, would the new laws really stop me? And am I really being watched any way? I'm not so sure.
Some might say I'm a heavy user of electronic media, but when I talk to people here at my university, there's not much difference between me and others here on campus. I update to Facebook two or three times a day. I send about 30 emails a day at work. I text at least a dozen times a day, and phone a couple of people too. I spend an hour or two on the internet, I tweet and blog pretty regularly. I've even started dabbling with Localmind and foursquare. So I've done some sums: the above adds up to more than 50 communications a day. I work in a university with over 10,000 staff and students, all probably communicating in a similar way at a similar rate. That's half a million communications a day, in one medium-sized university. Multiply that by every other Higher Education Institution, business, school or organisation in the country. If Big Brother is really watching us all, he's going to need eyes in the back of his head.
Liberty make a serious point about the potential infringement of human rights, and the fact that Big Brother probably isn't watching doesn't make it any less palatable in principle. There is a powerful counter argument to this that says that our human rights are even more threatened by terrorists, so we must trust the security services to do whatever they feel necessary to protect us.
But whatever the rights and wrongs of the proposed legislation are and however effective, or not, the new laws would be in protecting our National security, there is an important lesson in all of this for society as a whole. We must all be aware of the potential of the media we use.
Electronic communication gives us the ability to publish to a potentially global audience at the touch of a button. Power to protect much of what we do is in our hands. Facebook are notorious for changing privacy settings but it is relatively easy to lock down our accounts so they can only be seen by friends (or even close friends). It is clear that email is not a good medium for a confidential or sensitive conversation, especially if it is sent to your smart phone and you don't use a passkey.
Twitter is totally public and there need to be aware that we can re-tweeted at will by our followers and their followers. In terms of financial transactions, PayPal is safer than sending bank details by electronic media. If we really want to fight against Big Brother, or at least people who want to laugh at our political jokes, steal our credit card details or snoop at our photos, then the power is largely within our hands.
I belong to the generation who have seen such technologies evolve, but using them was not part of my formal education. This makes us particularly vulnerable to a lack of understanding of what we can do to protect ourselves electronically. Part of this is not to leap on every band wagon of media hype about who is watching us, but to learn to protect ourselves.
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