Privacy vs Protection: Should Governments have the power to access our personal data?

In a recently emerging court battle1, Apple have been pressured by the US Government to allow the NSA access to information on the iPhone owned by one of the attackers in the San Bernardino shooting on the 12th December 20152, which left 14 dead and 22 seriously injured. This case, alongside the progression of the Investigatory Powers Bill3 in the UK, has raised the question whether Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telecommunications companies have a moral obligation to refuse information to governmental powers.


The Government SHOULD NOT have access

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, in her foreword of the Draft Communications Data Bill4 (2012) stated that “the purpose of this Bill, is to protect the public and bring offenders to justice”, and this sentiment is echoed by the US Government in requesting access to data owned by Apple. However many critics of governmental “snooping powers” have warned that the effects of increased surveillance may be more dangerous to society than the crimes that the charters seek to prevent.

An obvious starting point, and a rallying cry from protester groups, is the human right to privacy – outlined in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights5 and honoured by both the UK and US. In the last 5 years, there has been international debate about whether or not this right should be forfeited and replaced by a social contract to protect against alleged terrorist threats. The debate is admittedly complex. Those that are pro-surveillance consider the new proposals necessary to uphold other human rights – such as the right to life. However if the right to privacy were to be amended, this would likely have several knock on effects to wider international law, raising questions such as “is torture admissible to prevent the right to life of others?”. Many people are of the opinion that basic human rights should be upheld as an unchanging reference point of morality, and society should focus on upholding these rights concurrently through methods that do not infringe them.

For demonstrators against snooping however this is only one chapter of the argument. The reforms also represent an undemocratic shift of power towards the government. The recent proposals are said to seriously threaten the power of the public, and their right to revolt6, should there be a consensus of disagreement with the authoritative powers. Although this may sound extreme, remember that most modern democratic societies celebrate being born out of revolution. Experts have warned7 that forgoing this right because it currently not needed may be catastrophic, when it is needed but is no longer there.

Aside from socio-political issues there also must be consideration from the ISPs to their customers and the public. First of all the ISPs vow data protection to their customers, which that cannot be promised when there are channels of access for the government to use. Often the rebuttal to data protection is that “innocent people should have nothing to hide”, but information does not have to be illegal to be compromising or embarrassing to an individual.

Taking into account the preservation of our rights, the protection of our power, and the privacy of our personal information; there is a strong case to argue that ISPs and telecommunications companies, although legally powerless, do have a moral duty to defend the public from increased surveillance by refusing to comply.

The Government SHOULD have access

On 13th November 2015, a series of extreme terrorist attacks8 occurred in Paris. These attacks caused the death of 89 people and 368 injuries9 which shocked the world deeply. The terrorist attacks were identified as premeditated and can be considered as a coordinated terrorism. Attacks such as this one encouraged the creation of the Snoopers’ Charter10. By this Charter, the security services can access the public’s messages, emails and internet searches, meaning terrorism plans can be detected and prevented before the accidents occur. In modern society, communications have multiple ways and are not geographically limited, which despite being useful to society, can also aid the planning of terrorism. The responsibility of Paris attacks was claimed by ISIL. It says that the attacks were planned in Syria, organised in Belgium, and perpetrated in France11. All the links and plans were communicated by the Internet and phones, including Facebook and Twitter12, which have become the most efficient tools for terrorists to communicate and disseminate. Furthermore, these social media can be utilised by terrorism to reach the public13, hacking into personal accounts for spying and analysis.  

Hacking14 activities began with the development of internet technology, allowing access to other’s private information illegally and silently. Hacking can the reveal a person’s private information, bank account and social media. However, the Snoopers’ Charter allow the official security services to spy on the Internet can reduce and prevent the hacking activities and actually preserve people’s right to privacy.    

Public security is becoming increasingly important, with modern convenient public transport it has become difficult for the government to monitor and identify people that may be a threat to the public. Improved society and people’s higher standard of living can be achieved by isolating criminal minds away from public, the earlier government finds the dangers, the less injury to the innocent people. Monitoring of criminals private information is a sufficient method to prevent crime taking place. Crime prevention not only protects the public but also a good method to protect all people involved in the event, including offender themselves and their families. Additionally, in the recent Apple vs FBI iPhone unlocking case1 it is clear that the government does not access people’s personal information except when they try to find evidence for some criminal event. The earlier the cooperation from Apple, the earlier FBI can take action and this will allow them to form countermeasures to prevent the further vicious events. Furthermore, innocent people do not have anything to hide from the government, therefore government access to private information should be allowed because it forms vital information in criminal investigations.

What do you think? Please join in the debate below.

62: David Freary, James Hockey, Jianyu Hao, Yuze Miao


8 thoughts on “Privacy vs Protection: Should Governments have the power to access our personal data?

  1. A thought provoking read, David. I think it is important to mention that the government or the intelligence agencies would only access private accounts if they had a reason to, such as known terrorist contacts or reasons to believe that the protagonist(s) are conspiring to commit a crime that could be prevented. But then I guess where does this stop, with anyone being capable of planning a crime?


  2. What a good article David, a very interesting read. I had not given consideration to the impact that surveillance procedures may have in the world of engineering! The wider ramifications that watering down the elusive concept of ‘privacy’ would have upon the recognition of other fundamental freedoms in a democratic society is so frequently omitted in the current surveillance controversies. While I do not condone the government’s proposals for ‘back door’ encryption it is clear that access to data held by private companies such as Apple is a crucial element in surveillance operations. That is undeniable. But the obligations that the US government attempted to impose upon Apple was a categorical overreach. Private entities have the power not only to inform but to truly influence outcomes in the present debate and for me, it is there moral obligation to protect not only their customers but our democracy.


  3. ISP’s have been put in an unfortunate position where they are confronted with the decision either to break the law or to break the promise of ‘privacy’ that they have given to their consumers. While this is regrettable, the end goal of the government is to keep people safe and whilst ISP’s may not have signed up for this they should think what effect their obstruction could have on the rest of society.


  4. The moral question here is whether we should infringe on (targeted) people’s privacy for security purposes. From a utilitarian perspective and in my own personal opinion, security outweighs privacy in this volatile time that we live in and if it means hacking a phone in order to gain information about an imminent terrorist attack, potentially saving many lives then so be it. It must be said however, that terrorists also operate using more covert sources such as the dark web as opposed to openly accessible sources and these means of communication make accessing data a futile effort due to anonymity.


  5. Despite you mention the government may has some excuse to access the private information sometimes, some effects may occur for the product company for example Apple. Frequently authorization for data accessing will make more risks on technology leaking-out, the government should also response for guarantee the company’s core technology and benefits. And the methods of how to balance the benefits for company and limitation of data access for government will be an enlargement.


  6. I think government would not really look into your information only if there are some sensitive words. I feel that our daily life is not likely to be affected. The more worth noting question is how to prevent our personal information being sold to third party companies for advertising or other purposes.


  7. First I’d like to say that our privacy should be protected by the government . In this case,I mean that if it’s related to some personal crime or there is a great possibility that something will have a bad affect on the public. It is ok for the government to have a access to private data or imformaton . Otherwise the service provider like Apples should have the responsibilities to protect the public privacy .


  8. Well, I think instead of the access, the real problem is: Who owns the access to our personal data? How they gonna use our personal data. In this case, it doesn’t matter if the government knows your privacy, as long as it doesn’t leak to public. So the secrets still remain secrets. The very important reason why the access can’t be cancelled is the necessity for unsafe information supervision.


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