We give too much of ourselves away

Labour MP John Robertson worries that a lack of education leaves many blind to the dangers of the internet.

John Robertson

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Online utilities such as those offered by Google can pose a threat to people’s privacy. However, although they are open to misuse, users do need to take a degree of responsibility. People need to be aware of what type of information they are giving to private companies and what might happen to it. So while there is an obligation on Google itself to ensure its systems are not misused, there is also a need for people to realise what information they are making publicly available. This is an issue of education.

I did a Westminster hall debate about Child Exploitation and Online Protection panic buttons last year during which I requested Facebook put one of these buttons on their website. (They said they wouldn’t do it). This button allows any young person who feels they’re being ‘groomed’ by someone to report that person’s email address to the relevant body. And that could then be checked out. Now of course, it could be entirely innocent, but the point is to register that the reported person has done something to make the other person feel unsafe. That children know these buttons are there, and what they are for, is an educational issue.

One of the key things here involves actually going round schools and explaining how online applications and tools work. Because Google and Facebook, for instance, offer some great services, but young people perhaps don’t realise that there’s a darker side or how the information that they’re providing these companies with could be used.

The fact of the matter is that people have to understand what can happen with the information they provide companies online. For example, a supermarket loyalty card allows a supermarket to know what you eat in your house, what you drink, whether you have a pet, whether you have children, their approximate age. And they can tell all that from what you buy in their store. This information helps the supermarket know what it ought to put on their shelves and so on. Now, like a supermarket, all these websites that you sign into, that you give your email address, your home address and home telephone numbers – now all that information is owned by a company now, and this company can pass it on to other people who are able buy it from them. Now while there needs to be rules governing that, people have to realise that when they do lodge information without reading all the small print, they are putting themselves at risk. This concern is widely shared: hidden in the small print of the terms and conditions is a clause allowing a company to give your information and data to a third party. Hence you receive emails form someone trying to sell you something and you wonder ‘how the hell did they get my email address’.

Now of course, some people are more vulnerable to this type of thing. And that’s why I emphasise the importance of education. You have to educate people about the internet, about what happens to any private information they submit. The best place to do that is in the schools. And because today’s children often know more about the internet than their parents, educating young people might educate the parents as well.

In terms of the furore around Google Street View, the key thing is that people, if they see something they don’t like – if it’s a picture of their house or a picture of themselves working in the garden – they can get it removed. And once you can do that, which you now can, I don’t think there’s a problem. After all, people find tools like Street View quite helpful. I think the truth of the matter is that most people don’t mind the intrusion of a photograph of their house too much at all.

However, when it comes to the collection of private data broadcast over private wifi networks, this is obviously a worry. And given that the Metropolitan Police are now investigating this, it is a real concern. Normally the police are inclined to shy away from cases like this where the law remains quite murky, so that indicates quite how serious a matter it must be. however, I will withhold any further judgement until the police report back their findings.

John Robertson is MP for Glasgow North West. See his website here. This article is based on an interview by Tim Black.

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