Nothing to hide, nothing to fear

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine Sep-Oct 2013

It’s difficult to know what to be most shocked by in the revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Is it the sheer scale of the trawling and storage of so-called ‘meta data’, which gives details of who you’ve emailed and when for example, but not what you said? Is it the brazen bugging of supposedly friendly embassies with the aim of gaining commercial advantage - giving the lie to the defence that this is all about the terrorist threat? Or is it the chilling statement by Foreign Secretary Hague that “if you are a law-abiding citizen of this have nothing to fear”? This is the standard tyrant’s justification for secret police and all the rest of the machinery of dictatorship. How is it that the state determines that I have nothing to hide? Where in this is the notion of innocent until proven guilty?

While European governments are rightly demanding explanations from the US and UK, the degree of public outrage - at least in the UK - is underwhelming. Why? Is it because we have become so used to the cameras everywhere? Have people accepted this as the price to pay to defend us from the ‘terrorist threat’. Or is there something more fundamental going on?

If someone tweets me a question, more often than not I reply by email. Perhaps because I come from the wrong generation I find it very difficult to get used to Twitter being used for one-to-one communication. I find myself thinking that I’m quite sure no one else wants to listen to our exchange. And yet, for a growing group of people, tweeting them is the only way to get their attention. Together with the endless status updates on Facebook, is this part of a fundamental cultural shift towards the notion that most conversations should be in public?

This might be behind one of the most startling - and hopeful - trends of our times: towards an implacable demand for transparency and openness.  Corporates and governments alike have learned that trying to shut down a scandal that has erupted on the net is fruitless - the only way to tackle it is to open up and come clean. From Milliegate to Jimmy Saville, from NHS gagging clauses to police spies.

Perhaps people are not so much worried that the state is recording details of their web visits and emails - who cares if they said it on twitter and on Facebook anyway. Rather they are outraged that the state is trying to shut this conversation down, that the Americans are pursuing Snowden and labelling him a spy when all he has done is reveal what we have a right to know. Perhaps the issue now is less our right to keep secrets, and more that they should keep no secrets from us.