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Invasion of privacy will drive exodus to the dark web

Friday, November 14th 2014 by Ellen Branagh

Taking away people's online privacy could drive ordinary citizens as well as criminals to turn to websites that cannot be easily traced, a cyber security professor has warned.

Professor Mike Jackson, cyber security expert at Birmingham City University, said people need to be aware of the implications of giving up their privacy, and a balance should be struck between security and privacy.

His comments come after Facebook recently revealed that worldwide government requests for user information rose by a quarter in the first half of 2014, compared with the previous six months.

In September Google reported a 15% increase in the number of requests in the first half of this year compared to the prior six months, and a 150% rise in the last five years, from governments around the world to reveal user information for criminal investigations.

And last week GCHQ head Robert Hannigan branded the internet a "command and control centre for terrorists", demanding greater access to communications data for security services. The Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) branded Mr Hannigan's comments "ill-judged" and urged that any future legislation should be proportionate.

Prof Jackson told Cable.co.uk that a rapid erosion of online privacy could lead to people turning to the dark web, the part of the internet that is not indexed by standard search engines, and thought by many to be a haven for criminality.

He said: "We are being sort of tutored to be happy at giving up our privacy and undoubtedly some of that we need to give up because we need to deal with things like terrorist activity.

"However there needs to be a balance. And we have moved from the position where obtaining information about people through transmitted sources was particularly difficult to get hold of and required intervention by court, to the point where governments simply expect to have it."

He said companies would be reluctant to comply with increasing demands to hand over users' information because it would mean that the only way people can protect their privacy is to stop using those companies.

"Some of the problems with the terrorist stuff is that your half-decent terrorist, the person who is good at being a terrorist, is now not using Facebook, not using Twitter, they're using the dark web which is much harder for the security forces to look at.

"The people who are actively wanting to organise themselves in an illegal way will now turn to methods which aren't as easy to look at and that's clearly what's happening. The use of the dark web is, as far as we know, increasing in very many ways.

He argued that criminals are "going to be harder to track down simply because they've been pushed off the more public things".

"What we will also find, I think, is ordinary people going that route too because they don't want to run the risk of having their privacy invaded in the way that governments think is natural," he added.

The argument over internet and data privacy is ongoing, with the government currently carrying out several reviews on communications data.

As it revealed the increase in government requests, Facebook last week said it will scrutinize every government request for legal sufficiency and "push back hard when we find deficiencies or are served with overly broad requests."

Prof Jackson said it was also important to allow for the possibility that some things that are not against the law could eventually become illegal, or vice versa.

He said: "If you look at the history of things, activity which was illegal then has in some way benefited society.

"This is not to say that all illegal activity will benefit society because that's far from the truth. But certain illegal activities have actually become accepted.

"If you go back and you look at the suffragettes, what they were doing was in a number of cases definitely illegal and they were imprisoned.

"Now had they been in our time they would certainly have been using the internet to organise themselves, and perhaps because the technology and tracking is so strong now, maybe the government at the time would have been able to arrest them all and there would have been no votes for women."

He also used the example of the so-called McCarthy "witch-hunts" in America in the 1950s and 60s.

Named after Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, they saw thousands of Americans accused of being communists or communist sympathisers and become the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies.

Prof Jackson said: "At the time of course, everyone thought McCarthy was doing a good job, these un-American activities needed rooting out.

"But later on we don't look at it that way, we actually think that that was a pretty awful time, people were being persecuted for having views which in those cases often were not illegal at all. But they could be persecuted simply because they had a view and certain people lost the chance to work because they had an opinion which wasn't illegal but could be demonstrated in things that they had written or said.

"If we're able to access everything people have written or said on Facebook how much more often could this have actually happened?

He added: "We're clearly entering into a position where privacy as far as governments are concerned because they have the chance now to invade it using the internet is being promoted as being less important.

"And yet it seems to me that the result of that is that we shall be losing certain amounts of social progress which we've seen in the past has come through what would have been illegal activity but very difficult to prosecute becoming recognised as being an important way of finding social justice.

"I find that a particularly scary thought that the government is allowed to know everything about us even though we may not have committed a crime, even though the majority of citizens are actually well behaved, they don't break laws, they don't do anything wrong, they don't harm their fellow.

"But because a few people do then the government takes it upon itself as a right to know everything about everyone.

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