On phone-hacking, privacy and more

The News of the World scandal has provoked many millions of words of ongoing analysis. But I haven’t seen much said about some larger issues that feel both depressing and alarming: issues of technology, privacy, and nations’ basic ability to protect their citizens.

Much of the phone hacking that went on occurred thanks, in part at least, to users of relatively young technologies having little sense of how vulnerable their supposedly private actions were to various forms of snooping. Meanwhile, the actions of the police and parliament suggest a dismal combination of ignorance, inertia and complacency (leaving aside potential corruption and collusion), and a legislative and investigative apparatus lagging many years behind what’s actually going on in the world.

Thanks in large part to the efforts of a few dedicated individuals, the depths of the rot are now being exposed in ever-uglier ugly detail. Newspapers may well have to think twice about ever doing this kind of thing again; more heads will certainly roll. But some of the larger lessons suggested by the whole process seem pretty bleak.

New technology and platforms continue to be adopted into the texture of our personal and private lives at an unprecedented rate. Legislation and regulation continue to lag several miles behind technological possibility; while the world throngs with far less accountable or transparent organisations than printed papers, which at least tend to exist as publicly-listed companies within countries whose legal systems can hope to hold them to account.

In other words, it increasingly looks like it’s everyone for themselves where privacy and information security are concerned. This may not be the worst of lessons to take on board if you’re a savvy 21st-century citizen. But it offers a pretty bleak outlook for those who’d like to believe that the state is able to offer them any meaningful safeguards or support when it comes to the digital realm.

Whole sectors of our state apparatus seem no longer fit for purpose. We don’t, it seems, just need new laws or protections; we need a whole new way of thinking about what it might mean to create or enforce these. And I can’t help fearing that it will be far, far too long before any of this begins to happen.