Wednesday, July 24, 2019

‘Alexa, give me an alibi’

Jun 16. 2019
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By The Nation

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Who would have guessed that your smart fridge could rat you out to the cops?

Alarm bells are ringing in Germany, which continues to struggle heroically with its egregious actions during World War II, amid moves to impose further on personal privacy in a bid to stem crime. The information stored on a smart fridge, for example, could prove whether you were at home when a crime occurred. The police want that information so they can lay or belay charges. But, for many critics, the issue is whether the authorities should have any such access to citizens’ private digital information, even for such a seemingly worthwhile cause. 

The debate surely boils down to striking the right balance between battling crime and state access to personal information.

Germany gave birth in the 1930s to the Gestapo, a secret police force arguably more adroit than any similar intelligence agencies in the Soviet Union, Britain or the United States at domestic spying with hidden cameras and tape recorders. People lived in fear lest their complaints over poor governance were overheard, amplified and used to convict them of treasonous dissent. Now, one news agency has said, those primitive devices might “pale in comparison to the smartphone in our pocket” and the internet-connected “digital assistants” found in many households, such as Google Home and Amazon Echo (“Alexa”).

“To fight crime effectively”, as an interior ministry spokesman put it, Germany’s national police are seeking access the massive amount of personal information that these smart devices absorb in order to become better responsive to their owners’ needs. The German officials plan to ask other countries to copy the strategy. 

These are gloomy times, ideologically speaking, with many governments drifting far to the right towards authoritarian control, enabled at every step by technological advances. If more-developed nations allow further incursions into individual privacy, how long would it take for the brutal regime in Myanmar and the despotic governments of Thailand, the Philippines and elsewhere to follow suit?

This is how the democratic fabric of global society is being gradually but steadily unravelled, all moral and ethical questions blunted by overriding legal arguments accepted as justification. The more we as citizens entrust our private information to the internet of things as a matter of sheer unthinking convenience, the more we yield our freedom to lawmakers and exploitative corporations. If your digital history bears the echo-print of condemnation of the US, don’t expect to be granted a visa to visit there.

Thai authorities are once again begging for international criticism, this time by delving into the digital history of a high-ranking member of a major political party. They can be expected to defend the intrusion by pointing out that even the US puts “national security” ahead of individual privacy. The ensuing outrage varies in loudness from place to place, but everywhere the people who are thus targeted have to pay the same price. Someday soon that might include most of us.

The German affair cannot be viewed in isolation. Righteous legislators, watchdog groups and citizens in general must keep their eyes open. Once a law permitting state invasion of privacy is enacted, it will be difficult to revoke, and off we go down the proverbial slippery slope, with even tighter state control bound to follow.

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