David Quinn

Wednesday 23 July 2014

I had a phone conversation on a bus; within minutes it was up on Twitter

David Quinn

Published 14/02/2014|02:30

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It has been alleged that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone was hacked by America's National Security Agency (NSA)
It has been alleged that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone was hacked by America's National Security Agency (NSA)

I GET to and from work on the bus. Even though I try to avoid it, sometimes I end up talking on the phone anyway. A couple of weeks ago, someone rang me about the whole RTE apology controversy and we had a chat about it. Later, a very garbled version of the conversation turned up on Twitter.

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Eavesdropping on people's conversations is nothing new but having the contents of a private conversation turn up a few minutes later on the internet, that is new. It's another sign of how privacy is being eroded bit by bit.

The GSOC controversy is a very different example of the same thing. Were they being tapped? Was their internet activity being monitored? Were their emails being read?

Actually, what I find most worrying about the whole thing is that the top-level security company GSOC employed to find out if they were being tapped couldn't offer definitive proof that they were and could only point to 'anomalies'.

Does this mean surveillance methods are now so sophisticated that even the best security companies can't offer absolute proof that you're under surveillance?

Clearly, that must be the case. It has been alleged that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone was hacked by America's National Security Agency (NSA).

Presumably, Merkel's own security people are always on the lookout to ensure her phone is not being hacked. Was it being hacked and they didn't know? Was it possible to know? Maybe it's not.

Perhaps this is why Enda Kenny, in reaction to the story, simply said his operating assumption was that his phone conversations were always being monitored.

This is 'Lives of Others' territory. 'Lives of Others' is a German movie set in the twilight years of communist East Germany. It deals with the huge spy network run by the East German secret police, the Stasi.

It's hardly an exaggeration to wonder about the extent to which we're being monitored when the French government felt compelled recently to call in the American ambassador to respond to allegations that the NSA was listening to literally millions of calls by French citizens.

When it isn't governments that's using modern technology to monitor other governments and their citizens, we're doing it to each other in ways that are frankly insidious.

On Tuesday, this newspaper reported the findings of a study which shows that 60pc of Irish teenagers now own a smartphone, which has left them more exposed to online bullying.

It reported: "Bullying remains the most harmful risky experience, with 26pc of girls experiencing it, compared with 17pc of boys.

"Sexual risks are second and the report's disturbing findings include that 10pc of 13- to 14-year-olds and 22pc of 15- to 16-year-olds have received sexual messages online."

It continued: "The study found that 35pc of 13- to 16-year-olds were exposed to some form of harmful content, such as hate messages (15pc), anorexic or bulimic content (14pc), self-harm sites (9pc), sites discussing suicide (8pc) and sites where people share their experiences with drugs (7pc)."

This newspaper also reported during the week on a fundraising cycle by a man whose daughter killed herself after online bullying.

Online bullying is a direct invasion of privacy. 'Invasion' is exactly the right word for it. It is an act of aggression, as is any attack on the private domain.

One definition of privacy is as follows: "Privacy is the claim of individuals, groups or institutions to determine for themselves when, how and to what extent information about them is communicated to others."

THIS means your privacy is invaded when someone (say) takes a picture of you at a private event and sends it into cyberspace, or when they listen in on a private conversation and then share the contents of that conversation online.

Almost all of us now have the ability to record any event and share it with potentially millions of other people at any time.

It means that anything you do that is compromising or embarrassing can now be instantly captured by practically anyone who feels like it and then get 'shared' on the internet.

A classic example was the girl at a concert in Slane a few months ago who was performing sex acts on a boy. She was filmed and the results went viral. This is grossly unfair and wrong.

However, the above definition of privacy doesn't quite capture all aspects of privacy. Privacy doesn't concern only the information about us that is shared with others, it also concerns people using modern technology to attack us in our own homes, which are no longer our castles.

It means you can't simply close your front door on the world when you arrive home in the evening. Unless you have the discipline not to go online, not to look at your texts after you get home, the bullies can always get at you.

Small-town life in Ireland is often depicted as a 'Valley of the Squinting Windows'. We might think we've left that behind, but we haven't. The 'squinting windows' metaphor conjured up the image of someone in their own home looking out through their blinds and minding other people's business.

But today, modern technology reverses that. We can still look out at the world and stick our noses where they don't belong, but increasingly the world can now invade our homes and attack our privacy in ways never before possible.

Governments are doing it, but we're also doing it to each other. We've become both spies and the spied-upon.

Irish Independent

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