Security vs. Freedom (A Short Story)

He stood blocking the light from a single window in the small room. It was cold even though the sun was warm outside. The only other person was a woman sat at a steel table; she was frail, almost transparent, tired of resisting, and tired of life.

His presence radiated strength as he spoke. “I remember when I lived in fear. Can you imagine I was afraid? It is true that life was cruel, with each man living on-the-edge, and for himself. The world as we knew it: was becoming chaotic; moving too fast; so lost on foolish quests. People were scared as change embroiled the world, and they were losing all that made them feel secure.”

Turning around, he looked down at her, compelling her to look up. “Where dictators didn’t rule, fascists and extremists terrorised the ‘so called’ democratic societies. The world was shrinking, and with this the economies started to crumble; and the great towers fell as the terrorists of the world hit out.”

“In those days you couldn’t board a plane without that fear in the back of your mind, that a terrorist maybe your neighbour. In some countries they would tie bombs to their bodies, calmly walk into a crowded café and explode; in others they would tie bombs under cars that would detonate once the poor driver turned the key in the ignition; or what about a change of carnage with chemical warfare in the subways? There were other alternatives of course: your children could have been shot in the school by some madman; or thieves may choose to sacrifice your life for some petty reward.

So we started to watch you, to protect you. We introduced a global numbering system, so that every person in the world would have their own ID. We likened it to the Social Security number, but really it was more than this. This number was scanned into their ID card, that later became an RFID implant. From hereon we were empowered to stop all known terrorists travelling by plane. The concept was accepted; those that travelled often got a fast track for the implant. Those that didn’t got a slow track. Eventually everyone wanted one, nobody wanted to be in the slow track, whether this was at the airport, the subway or in the supermarket.

However that was when the terrorists started to target more the subways, and we implemented it here too, and then on all trains, and buses. They even slaughtered innocent children in schools.  We chipped everyone, even the children to protect them. Those that were not chipped could no longer move, and we caught them for being guilty in having ‘something to hide’. The world became safe from terrorists and madmen. What an evolution! We now had in our global data-bank containing the biometrics of every individual in the world. We knew the online and offline movements of all; collected and stored in an intelligent data-bank that was able to predict what they were planning even before any ‘terror attack’ hit.

Hence you are protected, secure in a world that looks after you. You say you don’t like to be watched, but we don’t watch you all the time, we just track you. So yes, it’s true I know everything about you, but so what? I know everything about whoever I wish. So why should this offend you? Why do you continue to refuse to accept and conform, why are you not like the others who are settled in this wonderful new secure world? Why?”

Calmly he faced her, looking deep into her eyes. He could see how her strength ran deep, beautiful in its purity, but tired, so tired. The silence hung heavy in the room, breaking it she brought her thoughts to life. Her voice was quiet, firm and clear. “I appreciate that today our society is secure and safe. We are no longer at risk of attack from terrorist or madman. However in providing this security, society has taken from me my personal space, my privacy, and the freedom to do as I wish, when I wish; this is because I feel and know that I am being observed, this changes my behaviour, and ultimately the choices I make.

It is clear that security has a price to pay, and the currency is freedom. It is a delicate balancing act, to increase either, jeopardises the existence of the other. Man will however never be completely free; he will always find ways to build some security framework around him. Unfortunately, it is when the free man becomes obsessed with security we are faced with the risk that the scales of security and freedom will cease to balance.

Now the payment has been made. The scales that once hung so delicately have fallen. Freedom is lost, but man no longer realises this, he doesn’t know what freedom is. It is only I that still remembers.” She paused for a moment -her breathing shallow- and looked at him. “You have clearly forgotten.”

Sitting back in his chair he continued to survey her, saying nothing, finding himself savouring the sound of her voice, remembering something, but not sure what.

Standing up she moved over to the window; gravitating towards the light, the sun, where she had once been free. “Don’t you remember me anymore Security? I know freedom well. I am Freedom. I am what a man feels when he sits alone, and watches the mountains reaching high above the lake that lies so low. I am that yearning: when he sees the road that run so long, and the trains that pass so fast. I am the sound of birds in the air, the cool breeze that passes by, and the leaves that flutter loose. I am the feeling that man belongs not to anything, that he can walk and run where ere, to say and to think as he wishes.

Have you really forgotten Security? Don’t you remember our vow? We were married once, a long time ago, ‘Security and Freedom’. Has it been so long that you have forgotten how we loved each other, and how we promised in our union ‘that you would make man feel secure, and upon this foundation I would let him be free’?”

Written (but unpublished) 2001 after 9/11.

So you want to be forgotten?

The RTBF (Right to be forgotten) is a hot topic following the Spanish ruling against Google. The fact is that European Google must first evaluate and remove if considered reasonable search results that threaten the requester’s right to personal privacy. It is claimed to be a blow to Freedom of Speech. Google has already received 70,000 requests and receives on average 1000 requests each day! In U.K. claims are being made that it is in conflict with s.32 of the Data Protection Act 1998.

There is a good write-up on discussions following the ruling at: Debate Write-Up: Rewriting History.

Christopher Graham the Information Commissioner gives a good explanation of what it really means, but unfortunately it is lost in the panicked crys of other participants in the debate.

It is very straight-forward: There is claimed to be a the conflict between the Freedom of Speech and Personal Privacy, i.e. in this case the RTBF. However there is not, it is as Graham states:

1) There are two types of parties here: a) the data controller, and b) the journalist;
2) The ruling pertains to the data controller the RTBF, not journalists, so in UK for example, this does not impact s.32 of the Data Protection Act;
3) Just that the search results are not returned by the search engine of the data controller, does not mean that the data does not exist. It is just that is is not searchable;
4) This information pertaining to an individual is still on the website of the newspapers, and should be searchable directly on the website.

So this cannot be likened to ‘burning of books’ or ‘re-writing history’ as in George Orwell’s 1984. It basically means that if, for example an individual defrauded the Inland Revenue 10 years ago:

    – If you search for this person by name, it will not return this name in the result.
    – However if you search for ‘Inland Revenue fraud’ it could return this person’s name in one of the related articles.

What I see is that the main challenge is from a technical perspective. At the moment the onus is on the data controllers to receive requests, to decide if the requester has a valid request for removal from their search engines. However, I believe that this should be done as default by websites of newspapers. This could be difficult because on a technical level it is only possible, that I am aware of today, to exclude whole webpages from Google, not names or specific words.

Freedom of speech in China

This is a privacy blog, however there are times when the right to freedom of speech and personal privacy overlap somewhat. Hence I am sure that I am not alone in feeling delighted at the award of the Nobel prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波).

There is more: on October 11, 23 Chinese Communist Party elders known for their pro-reform positions, including Mao Zedong’s former secretary Li Rui (李锐) and former People’s Daily editor-in-chief Hu Jiwei (胡绩伟), submitted an open letter to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, formally China’s highest state body, calling for an end to restrictions on expression in China. Read more at the China Media Project.