#Infosec16: Access to Private Info Saves Lives, So There Can Be No Absolute Right to Privacy

“In a world where private information can quite often protect the tax payer, stop a multitude of crime or save lives, there can be no absolute right to privacy.”

This was the opinion voiced by The Right Honourable Lord Hague of Richmond in his opening keynote speech at Infosecurity Europe 2016 this week where he discussed the tensions surrounding security versus privacy.

Having held a plethora of roles during his 26-year career in parliament, Hague is surely the ideal person to discuss the ins and outs of the current hot top of government access to encrypted communications in the name of national security, along with delving into the privacy debate it so often raises.

In his view, whilst he understands and appreciates much of the privacy fears that currently engulf the subject – especially in the public sphere – the debate about whether or not States should be able to access criminal communications will only end in one way.

“Having seen what I have of threats to security in a modern society, for the security of the mass of the population to be jeopardized, I can’t see that an absolute right to privacy will withstand the pressure of argument and of events over the coming years.”

“I think the laws in most western societies will only end up in one place, reaffirming the right, on national security or strong law enforcement grounds, to be able gain access to information,” he added.

There is a need for intelligence to frustrate organized crime, terrorism and foreign espionage, said Hague, arguing that the potential gains from acquiring information to hinder such criminal activity are greater than from most forms of physical attack.

“If we are not able to gather intelligence effectively about organized crime or about terrorist activity, restrictions on the liberty of our citizens would have to be much more serious.

“On the debate about privacy and security it’s vital to understand that we cannot track down the arms dealer selling hideous weapons illegally without intelligence. We can’t find the criminal gang that is enslaving people into the sex industry without intelligence. We can’t find corrupt individuals defrauding the tax payer of huge sums through some new, inventive means without intelligence. We can’t find the terrorist planning murder in our streets without intelligence and that intelligence is bound to involve some invasion of privacy.”

However, Hague suggested that there is a disconnect between how the public view the government’s right to access information and the actual structured, detailed and secure process that goes on behind closed doors – a significant factor in generating much of the widespread public concern and anxiety on this subject.

“I saw and experienced in my work how sensitive the way is in which we [government] do this,” he added.

“Those of us who have been in government have to recognize there’s a deep suspicion of government and intelligence agencies on this subject; it’s healthy that there is a suspicion, it’s a sign of a free society, but people don’t often hear what it’s like to actually make these decisions about intercepting communications.”

In the UK, the contents of somebody’s communications can only be intercepted with a warrant signed by a Secretary of State, the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary or the Northern Ireland Secretary – it can’t be done by an official or a junior minister. So some of the most senior ministers in the country spend a good deal of their time and take considerable trouble over each individual warrant which come with lengthy justifications and are accompanied by extensive legal advice and specialist opinions.

“If people could see that in action they could see how ridiculous the idea of a Snooper’s Charter is,” Hague argued, “because the time and trouble taken over these issues at the individual level at the top of government is really considerable.”

It’s a system with many checks and balances and it’s not open to abuse by any single person; if people could see how that happens their anxiety and hostility on this issue might be somewhat alleviated, he added.

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