Sunday 9 February 2014

Good and bad surveillance

Gossip is what keeps us going, and we puritans always enjoy a quick peak into the private lives of others every now and again.

Many of us have had a good chuckle at the recent misfortunes of those hapless American diplomats who forgot that their telephone calls were capable of being monitored. The  recent “F*ck the EU” comment, uttered by US diplomat Victoria Nuland (pictured left) during a phone conversation with  the US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, when discussing a plan for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to help sort out the situation in the country, won't be forgotten for some time (if ever).

It would have been nice for those who released the recording to have included the bit where the US Ambassador scolded Nutland for making such an uncouth remark. As this part of the conversation was not made public, I can only assume that the scolding occurred another time.

Perhaps, it was when the world+dog got to hear of her views. Or when the US President learnt of them. Or, after EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton stated that the EU would not comment on a "leaked alleged" conversation. Or, when spokesman Christiane Wirtz stated that the German Chancellor had termed Nuland's remark "absolutely unacceptable." 

If I were to bet on the identity of those responsible for the publication of the intercepted material, I would not just cast my eye at the Russians, who surely must have the technical capability to intercept diplomatic phone calls. I would also consider the Germans, perhaps in retaliation for the recent revelations about the ability of the US Administration to intercept Mrs Merkel’s phone calls.  Revenge is a dish best served k√§lte.

Anyway in my eyes, this is “good surveillance,” as it serves to keep all diplomats on their toes. They have to assume that whatever they do is being monitored, and thus they have to behave properly at all times.  In this day and age, diplomats should expect to be held accountable for all their thoughts and actions.

This is a very different case than what I term “bad surveillance,” which is what the experienced Telegraph journalist Catherine Gee (pictured right) has recently been getting up to.

Those of us with nothing better to do last night might have joined me in settling down on the sofa for the latest episode of “The Voice,” the reality show where a bunch of wannabies pitch for a career in show business.

A “discovery” last night was one contestant, for whom news of  any previous show business experience was withheld from us. We had to wait for Catherine's TV review to learn that the contestant: “had previously reached the bootcamp stage of The X Factor in 2010 and provided backing vocals for JLS.” But what was quite shocking was Catherine’s next comment: “Some internet housekeeping has also recently taken place as this information was gleaned from cached versions of deleted internet pages.”

Is it ethical for a journalist to search through “deleted” material for a show business story about a nobody?

Unless there is a sufficiently good reason for this, I say no. There simply wasn’t enough in the story to allege that we, the public, were being willfully misled either by a TV production team, or by said wannabe, to justify the intrusion into their past life.

What does this tell me?  That a Telegraph journalist is capable of doing the dirty on wannabe starlets that have barely experienced their first few minutes of fame.  Said wannabe hasn't even been able to have been booted off the show after the first sing off, or implode under the pressure of living in the public eye.

The lesson we must learn is that, in the digital world, we forfeit our right to privacy when we use the internet. We forfeit it for reasons of national security, and also for the purposes of journalism. We cannot assume that material no longer available on the internet has been deleted. We have to assume that, thanks to tools like the Internet Archive, any material we have previously uploaded is and will always remain available to those who have the means to access it. Which include spies and journalists.

We have all lost the right to “forget.” Instead we should campaign to replace it with a new one – the right to “forgive.”