Sunday 25 September 2016

Ireland sacrifices privacy at the altar of foreign investment

Published 07/10/2015 | 02:30

The Hailo taxi service is one of the popular apps which has developed sophisticated tracking technologies
The Hailo taxi service is one of the popular apps which has developed sophisticated tracking technologies
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: Reuters

Unlike most of my friends, I don't use Uber or Hailo, the popular taxi apps that have been cleverly marketed in such a way that they appeal (amongst other things) to the inner murder victim that lurks in the psyche of many women.

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Don't get me wrong, I'm deadly serious about my personal safety: I don't walk anywhere alone after dark, figuring that the cost of a taxi is a small price to pay for my security or, God forbid, my life.

I also appreciate the advantages for criminal investigators of the type of sophisticated tracking technologies deployed by 'Hailo' and other companies, should one have the misfortune to become a victim of crime - or worse.

The recent trial of convicted murderer Graham Dwyer, who was snared by a plethora of 'smart' devices, including material gleaned from his depraved internet history, illustrates the vital role technology can now play in the detection, prevention and prosecution of crime. These include crimes that can pose a risk to national security.

But I value my privacy. And every time a shiny new app emerges, I question whether the convenience of what's on offer is justified by the inevitable, often extensive intrusion into my private life - and usually form the view that it is not.

Privacy, as the Irish Law Reform Commission (LRC) has noted, goes to the heart of human dignity. It's true we live in an age of ubiquitous personal disclosure. But the widespread harvesting of private data by companies and governments - for reasons benign to nefarious - has serious consequences for our private lives.

That is why yesterday's ruling by the European Court of Justice (CJEU) on personal data is critical.

The ruling, by the EU's highest court, has held that a 15-year-old agreement between the US and Europe governing the transfer of personal data to the US by firms such as Google and Facebook - the Safe Harbour agreement - is invalid.

Safe Harbour has been deemed invalid because the agreement doesn't provide adequate protection against mass, indiscriminate surveillance by the US authorities. These include the National Security Agency, a body whose activities have come under intense scrutiny as a result of revelations by exiled US whistle-blower Edward Snowden. You might shrug your shoulders and say, "So what? If you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear".

But that indifference ignores the fact that vast tracts of data are being harvested by companies and others on our every waking hour and, in some cases, our thoughts.

This information is very valuable: there is a reason why Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg observed that if the service is free, you are the product.

However, great consumer experiences should not come at the expense of privacy.

And governments, even friendly foreign ones such as the US, should not have the right to conduct mass surveillance without adequate protections for those, including non-nationals, whose private lives they survey.

What is maddening about the Safe Harbour ruling is the fact that it took an Austrian litigant suing in the Irish courts to expose our Government's failure to protect our data.

The Irish authorities have rolled over like puppies wanting their bellies tickled to appease the technology sector and the numerous companies such as Google and Twitter who have made Ireland their EU base.

We have sacrificed privacy, a constitutionally enshrined right in Ireland, at the sacred altar of foreign direct investment.

As the European destination of choice for these multinationals, our regulators and Government have a duty to champion the privacy rights of citizens here and beyond.

As the Schrems case returns to the Irish High Court, we can no longer dismiss the public interest in protecting the private sphere.

Irish Independent

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