Privacy: the 21st century civil rights dilemna

The revelations and high drama relating to the Murdoch empire has dominated the news both in the United Kingdom and further afield. It is the ultimate irony that the fallout from the illegal and immoral invasion of privacy to sell ‘news’ is in fact fuelling the sale of more newspapers and more ad revenues for the broadcasters.

Despite this, the debate over hacking and the News of the World has rightfully spread, first to the issue of media, politics and ethics, and then to the further erosion of public trust in the British establishment. However, I cannot help but feel that many are still missing the point. The events of the past few weeks feeds into an even wider debate, a debate that will inevitably come to dominate the civil rights agenda in the twenty-first century: the issue of privacy.

Almost every facet of our lives is recorded, almost every movement captured on CCTV. The fact that you have accessed this webpage means that your IP address has been recorded on one or more databases. Whether this is right or wrong is beside the point: it is the inescapable reality of modern life. It raises a plethora of Orwellian questions: who has the right to access our medical, financial and personal records? Who has the right to know what websites we visit and what phone calls we make? And who should decide what constitutes information that the public has the right to know? These are not new questions. However, from the furore over super-injunctions and Ryan Giggs’ over-active sex life to the horrific intrusion of private grief, they are questions that require new answers.

We live in a digital age where the storage and flow of information is in a perpetual state of revolution. Faster and more effective means of managing that information are being developed almost daily. As a result, new safeguards are needed to protect that data. The relative ease in which “journalists” have been able to access voicemail messages is proof enough of that. But beyond this, Britain needs a deeper examination of what rights its citizens are entitled to and, crucially, what protections it can (and should) put in place that enhance our civil liberties rather than erode them.

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