Goldsmiths debates mass surveillance and digital human rights

Goldsmiths hosts Defending Human rights in a Digital Age Pic: Goldsmithslondon

Goldsmiths hosts Defending Human rights in a Digital Age Pic: Rosie Slater

Mass surveillance in the wake of fallout over the Snowden leaks is to be debated at Goldsmiths, University of London in Lewisham.

The panel for Defending Human Rights in a Digital Age, organised by Marianne Franklin, Professor of Global Media and Politics at Goldsmiths, will include human rights defenders, activists, legal experts and a former spy. It takes place on Tuesday December 8.

Panelist Sherif Elsayed-Ali, deputy director of global issues at Amnesty International, said his concern was privacy. “We don’t really know what governments and companies do with our data.”

He said that as people’s lives become more digitally connected, those who control data will gain more power. “We risk sleepwalking into a future where there is no privacy, with all this entails for our other rights.”

Surveillance of interactions on sites such as Facebook and Twitter has garnered a huge amount of media attention recently. The lack of privacy online is also top of the agenda for panelist Annie Machon, a former MI5 intelligence officer who resigned to blow the whistle on alleged crimes at the service.

“Without privacy we cannot read, write, watch, download, conduct relationships or become politically active without the fear of being watched,” she said.

“We then start to self-censor — in fact, post-Snowden, 28 per cent of people are already doing so in the UK.  Without this basic, enshrined human right, we lose the means to push back against authoritarianism.”

According to the UN, offline rights must also be protected online. In 2013, the organisation expressed deep concern about the negative impact that surveillance and interception of communications may have on human rights, and called upon all states to respect and protect the right to privacy in digital communication.

Carly Nyst, a technology and human rights consultant who will join the panel, said: “Digital surveillance makes it easier to create indelible profiles of every individual and that scares away non-conformism. Censorship in the name of preventing extremism has become automated and is silencing interesting and progressive thinkers.”

Nyst, a former legal director with Privacy International, said the combination of shrinking space for truly radical ideas and pervasive monitoring by states, corporations and even by Twitter followers means that our society is becoming “progressively beige”.

Nyst added: “Don’t be apathetic about surveillance, just because you’re naive enough to think you have nothing to hide. Don’t let yourself feel powerless in the face of tech companies that track your every move.

“Be bothered by it. Adjust your privacy settings. Take steps to claim your privacy and encourage others to do the same. Speak up against surveillance laws and government policies that stamp out free speech under the guise of fighting terrorism.”

The panellists will also discuss how to ensure freedoms online and how internet users can work towards this.

Elsayed-Al said people must know how their data is being used before demanding more transparency and accountability from governments and companies.

Machon went a step further. “Even if new protections and laws are enshrined, we cannot trust that the intelligence agencies will obey the law. So, we also need to take responsibility for our own privacy into our own hands. Cryptoparties, where you can learn privacy enhancing technologies for free, are a good first step.”

Joining Elsayed-Ali, Machon and Nyst on Tuesday evening will be Renata Avila, a human rights lawyer from Guatemala; Becky Kazansky, a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam; and Maria Farell, a writer and consultant on Internet policy and communications. Franklin will moderate.

The event is free for all and runs from 6.30pm to 9.30pm in the Professor Stuart Hall Building at Goldsmiths, University of London, in Lewisham.

By Harriet Edwards and Rosie Slater.

Leave a Reply