Google is watching you!

MP Robert Halfon argues that we need to stop internet companies from creating their own surveillance society.

Robert Halfon

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Topics Science & Tech

Although in my role as a member of Parliament I recently raised an early day motion (EDM) on surveillance and the internet because of concerns that Google allegedly mapped every single wireless internet connection in Britain, I am actually an enthusiast for Google products. I run my Commons business using Googlemail, for example, and I have Google Sync on my Blackberry. However I think there’s a great difference between advancement of the internet and violating people’s right to privacy.

The fact that Google has been collecting people’s personal data broadcast over their wifi networks is a huge infringement on personal liberty. I find it amazing that Google did this, firstly, without permission, and secondly, that the company seemed to have got away with it without causing uproar.

Google does say it was a mistake. But I don’t see how you can make a mistake that consists of going to millions of homes across the country and mapping their wifi. Even it was a mistake, the UK information commissioner should look into this and perhaps have an inquiry – however innovative Google may be, it does not mean that the firm has the right to infringe on people’s personal privacy.

Unfortunately, it seems that the company, despite having produced such great technological advances, has forgotten that people are individuals. Just as we are getting rid of the previous government’s surveillance society, we ought not to replace it with another one formed by private companies like Google.

I am not just worried by Google. There are also reports that BT has been allegedly trawling people’s Facebook accounts to check for critical comments about BT. Again, this is totally out of order, and I think that there has to be a limit to what these companies do. There needs to be an urgent inquiry into the role of internet and telecommunications companies so that we can look at their role in relation to people’s privacy.

I suspect there is a lot privacy encroachment going on which has yet to be uncovered. There needs to be an inquiry into the role of the internet and its relationship to individual liberty because there is probably so much going on under the surface – tracking of what we do on the internet, tracking of what we say on the internet, all for commercial purposes.

Now, I am not against private companies. I am a Conservative, after all. And as mentioned, I use Google a lot to run my business and Commons affairs. But this time it has gone too far. For example, there was even a report in last weekend’s papers that Google had allegedly published a picture of a very young, naked child using a Google Earth satellite. While the company apologised for this and removed the image, it does indicate the extent to which privacy has been compromised.

Indeed, there is a danger that no one will have any privacy whatsoever – and this time the threat is not from the state. It is actually private companies who seem to have acquired the right to photograph what goes on in people’s gardens. And that is a very dangerous shift, because if no one has any privacy, we will be living, dare I say it, with a privatised version of Big Brother run by some of these internet companies. This is the scenario slowly creeping upon us.

I do accept that it is very difficult for a nation state to deal with what is effectively a transnational company. And I also speak as someone who thinks we have more than enough regulation as it is. But when it comes to people’s privacy, there must be an investigation into these privacy breaches so as to ensure that nothing like this happens again. And perhaps if an inquiry finds cases where companies have infringed on people’s privacy without their permission, there could be some kind of fine – although Google is global, there is nothing to stop the government from fining Google in the UK. Indeed it is only huge companies like Google that have the infrastructure and the financial muscle to go round and photograph everyone in the country and map people’s personal wireless internet connections.

In terms of what should happen now, alongside an inquiry from the information commissioner, parliamentarians need to raise this issue, not just on the floor of the house, but as a Commons motion. I want there to be a debate on the right to individual privacy and the role of the internet. An increasing number of parliamentarians are aware of the issue – 23 have now signed my EDM now, and former shadow home secretary David Davis, a prominent defender of civil rights, is my co-signatory. So there is an awareness of the issue in Parliament, but my view is that it needs to be taken far more seriously.

Of course, we do need to support the growth of the internet and we need to use all of the wonderful advantages that the internet brings – I myself am a passionate champion of the internet and the mobile internet. But we also need to ensure that all these advances do not create a privatised Big Brother state that harms people’s personal liberty.

Robert Halfon is Conservative MP for Harlow. See his website here. This article is based on an interview by Tim Black.

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Topics Science & Tech

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