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In the news recently there has been considerable coverage of major issues surrounding online and technological privacy in the UK and USA. Following revelations about surveillance from figures such as Edward Snowden, awareness of security concerns posed to the general public by multinational corporations and even the government have sparked controversy. There have been several investigations into these matters that are indicating our private use of personal devices and websites is not as private as we previously expected.
Mass surveillance online by governments declared legal
Government anti-terror officials have recently announced that it is officially legal for the UK government to enact mass surveillance on citizens on the internet, due to the classification of interactions on many websites as “external communications”. When companies have headquarters overseas, such as Facebook in the US and Ireland, and Skype in Luxembourg, actions on their websites are considered “external” and thus it is justified by law for these conversations and uses to be intercepted to protect national security.
The 48-page statement explained that this means smartphone, laptop and tablet usage on various websites such as Facebook messages, Google searches and even emails can be monitored pervasively without warrant, even if the individual in question is not suspected of illegal activity by security officials. These communications fall under section 8(4) of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
Charles Farr of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism claims that such measures are necessary for national security institutions to navigate the “convoluted” path that information takes on the web to intercept data that reveals potential risks. Some have classified this procedure as necessary, whilst others have claimed it is a breach of human rights to privacy that indicates the extent of government surveillance perhaps exceeds what it is willing to admit.
Social media surveillance revealed on Facebook
Although such practises have been announced legal when in the interest of national security, executed by intelligence agencies, multinational corporations such as Facebook have come under fire for their potential exploitation of users’ data. Many major stories have been circulating in the technological sphere relating to the social media giant’s approach to customer privacy.
Among these is the news that for a week in 2012, Facebook secretly conducted research into ‘emotional contagion’ over its social media platform by altering the News Feeds of 689,000 users to display either predominantly positive or negative posts. The aim of this study was to ascertain the extent to which users’ moods could be affected by social media content, and how this would spread through users via such ‘emotional contagion’ online.
The concern over the disclosure of this information is in part the arguably questionable ethics of intentionally manipulating users’ emotions, and also because of the way that this shows Facebook is able to intercept users’ personal network data for an agenda. Although its representatives claim the study was undertaken to “improve [their] service and to make the content people see on Facebook as relevant and engaging as possible,” many people are now unsure of the neutrality of what they see on their screens. However, a majority of people still maintain that this is a real exploitation of power and breach of human rights.
Facebook has also recently announced that two major changes to its advertising policy will allow it to track users’ actions not only on Facebook itself, but also on other sites whilst logged into the site. This change will also enable Facebook users to access their advertising profiles established through their likes and clicks, even editing the data that has been collected to prevent being shown certain types of adverts. This news has been received in contrasting ways by different groups – some are concerned about the complex and powerful manner in which Facebook accesses and utilises online browsing data, even outside of the bounds of the site; whereas others are lauding this development for giving users control over what is advertised to them, making content more relevant.
Is smartphone security at risk?
It would appear that user data is not safe on mobile phones, either. Vodafone has recently revealed the existence of secret wires enabling surveillance of users by government agencies. These wires have been in use by 29 countries for some time through Europe and further afield. Releasing a detailed 40,000 page report prompted by recent surveillance discussions sparked by the Snowden revelations, Vodafone explained that intelligence agencies can listen in to phone calls and mobile data including the GPS location of the individual. This process does not require a warrant, and consequently Vodafone is calling to end this and implement a law that means government bodies require permission to intercept data. In 2013, the UK had 514,608 warrants for legal interception of national metadata and 2,760 for national content. This has been dubbed by privacy organisations a “nightmare situation” for individuals’ tech security.
For many, these recent revelations surrounding online security are a real issue. Perhaps corporations will begin to reconsider the way they use the data of their customers and the level of security they provide in the future. For now, it is simply a matter of waiting to find out which other areas of our online experience may be being tampered with.
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