British novelist and journalist John Lanchester wrote an interesting piece in last week’s Guardian, on his review of material leaked by whistleblower Ed Snowden.
He starts by admitting he does not share the instinctive opposition to state secrecy. As he puts it: “Democratic states need spies”. Because democracy has enemies, he argues, the right to privacy must be qualified, just as other rights are qualified. But the danger in the digital age is that “with a couple of clicks of a mouse an agent of the state can target your home phone, or your mobile, or your email, or your passport number, or any of your credit card numbers, or your address, or any of your log-ins to a web service.”
Lanchester, not a lawyer, makes a sensible and simple proposal for the murky area of legislating government access to private digital information: a digital bill of rights.
The most important proviso on the bill would be that digital surveillance must meet the same degree of explicit targeting as that used in interception of mail and landlines. No more “one end overseas” and “sigint development” loopholes to allow the mass interception of communications. There can be no default assumption that the state is allowed access to our digital life.