Right to privacy vs public security


by Nina White

It has been 18 years since the devastating September 11 terrorist attacks. Since then, and as a direct response, the world has changed rapidly. Governments across the world and especially in the west have gone to great lengths to guard every corner of their nations to prevent such an atrocity from ever occurring again. As a consequence of this, there has been a raft of anti-terrorism legislation which has led to a trade-off in the arena of public security versus the right to privacy.

Article 8 of Human Rights Act 1998 states that ‘everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life’, which a public authority cannot interfere with unless it is necessary to do so ‘in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country’.

From the first leaks of Edward Snowden to the latest revelations of facial identification systems being used to spy on the public, what is the price of security? One of the most touted lines is ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’, the counter would be that privacy is inalienable. You wouldn’t let somebody open your letters or snoop around your house, but if the government do intercept our personal messages, emails and view us through our own cameras, would it be okay to do so?

Human rights organisations such as Liberty UK have condemned the use of facial recognition by public authorities, where it has been used to match the faces of people walking through public spaces with images of people on a watch list. This is concerning as the technology is used to create identifiable biometric maps of anyone, including those who have not been convicted of any crime. Liberty UK has described the use of biometrics as being ‘more like fingerprints than photographs’, arguing that ‘if we know we’re being watched and having our faces scanned, we change our behaviour.’

Throughout the last decade, one of the primary methods through which governments have tried to combat terrorism is by placing tougher restrictions on immigration. For example, as part of the ‘hostile environment’ policy, the Home Office has been using homeless charities to obtain personal data from non-UK rough sleepers in order to monitor illegal immigrants. This bypasses privacy laws, hence why many councils have been refusing to operate in such a way. Why does the government feel they should be able to access people’s personal information without their consent?

Of course, public security is extremely important and measures should be in place to ensure that it is maintained. However, we should also ensure that our human rights are upheld and question whether public authorities are actually acting in the national interest, or if they are using counterterrorism measures as an excuse to control the most vulnerable in society and prevent people from expressing themselves freely. Sometimes we need to ask ourselves, how much do we value our privacy and to what extent is it acceptable to breach our right to this in exchange for wider security.

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