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May 23, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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The Art of Vanishing

Throughout history people have left cities for towns, towns for villages and villages for caves. They have packed their bags, rehoused their pets, left a gift for the mailman, a cryptic note on the door and walked out of lives that will become as distant as strangers. But is it possible to become a traceless hermit in these times of social networking , search engines and public surveillance? Or at least to keep some things private, while sharing enough information to form and maintain valuable relationships? Along with death and taxes, it seems that a third certainty in life is developing. Salient feature writer Selina Powell investigates the inevitability of a public record in the digital age.

Erasing David

In Erasing David, which aired in the Edge Documentary Film Festival earlier this year, Oxford Graduate and media worker, David Bond is an example of an average citizen disturbed by the level of information which has been collected about him. Bond requests copies of information held by various Government and commercial organisations and is surprised by the sea of paperwork which he receives. Amazon alone has 120 pages on every gift that Bond has given through the site, including the contact details of gift recipients. Mobile phone providers have the details of every call that Bond has made, and internet providers store the records of every website he has visited. Bond’s bank has a record of his mood as perceived by a teller on a particular day, several years ago.

Bond decides to experiment with the question of whether it is possible to disappear in Britain, a society with roughly 5 million CCTV cameras. He hires detectives to locate him with only a name and a photo.

Predictably, the detectives begin looking for Bond with the ultimate stalking tool, Facebook. Although Bond has deleted his account, the detectives are able to retrieve his page, and then use the information contained here to follow other leads on the public record. A tracking device is placed on the car of Bond’s wife. The detectives then set up a new Facebook page, pretending to be Bond and get in touch with his friends to acquire more information. They discover that Bond has been in Belgium after a man unexpectedly films an encounter with Bond and then posts it on the internet.

Bond lasts for 18 days before he is tracked down by the detectives through the release of his wife’s private medical information to complete strangers. Through one man’s struggle to remain anonymous, Bond draws attention to larger issues of a generation caught in a world wide web of poorly controlled information exchange.

Privacy Online

Governments are beginning to acknowledge the privacy implications of online communication, although regulation is still in its infancy. The US Government is currently considering legislative measures to protect personal information and allow people to opt out of being tracked online. A recent decision by the Swiss Federal Administrative Court imposed an obligation on Google to preserve the anonymity of Swiss citizens by blurring license plates and faces of those captured in Street Views of Google Maps. In a British judgment, the release of information on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites was specifically prohibited.

The Privacy Commission in New Zealand is increasingly recognising the need to provide protection against privacy invasion across a range of media. Last year, the Commissioner investigated allegations that Google had acquired WiFi information while developing Google street view, including names of networks and the contents of communications from unsecured networks.

A Privacy Commission survey has highlighted the growing use of social networking by New Zealanders and the apparent complacency of users when it comes to privacy. A recent survey found that four out of five New Zealanders aged 18 to 30 used social networking and more than half of users overall believed that sites were predominantly private spaces to share information with friends.

In a media release last year, Privacy Commissioner, Marie Shroff, noted that a large number of people, “think that they’re more private on their social networking sites than they actually may be. So they’re likely to put information up there not realising that they could be sharing it with the whole world – that’s risky for them”.

Search and Surveillance

The Search and Surveillance Bill was first introduced to Parliament in 2009. Following public outcry about the bill, the Justice and Electoral Select Committee decided that the bill should be redrafted. In November of last year, the Committee recommended that a revised version of the proposed legislation be passed with amendments.

Critics of the bill have not been swayed by recent alterations. Activist group, Stop The Bill Now, claims that the proposed legislation will restrict an individual’s right to silence in police custody, dramatically increase police powers and legitimise the excessive use of surveillance devices by police and government agencies.

In a largely identical submission authorised by over 150 petitioners, the Community Co Advocacy Petition to the Select Committee put their position in the following unequivocal terms, “No Police State in New Zealand is the call, start listening!”. The Petition described the bill as, “an unpleasant joke, constructed in the mind of a village idiot”.

Labour and the Greens, forming the Minority opinion of the Select Committee, also expressed concern. Both parties have reservations about the use of production and examination orders under the regime which require the disclosure of information to police. Again, examination orders are perceived as limiting the right to silence, while production orders are framed as restricting freedom of the press with media potentially being required to release confidential sources.

Labour also notes new powers conferred on agencies other than the police may be utilised more frequently than Parliament intended.

The Law Commission, as author of the report which the legislation stems from, has argued that much of the criticism of the Search and Surveillance Bill is sourced in a misunderstanding of both the current law and the provisions of the proposed legislation. In releasing the report, the Commission was attempting to address the piecemeal development of the law around search and surveillance which arguably resulted in a lack of clarity and consistency in the exercise of State power. The Commission did not want to significantly extend Police power, but rather codify existing judicial practice to enhance the transparency of the law.

Rather than removing rights, the Commission hoped that a statutory framework would limit excessive individual discretion by enforcement officers and strengthen the human rights of those subject to search and surveillance measures.

While many have criticised the bill as undermining civil liberties, the rights based approach of the Commission is reflected in the acknowledgement of key human rights legislation in the purpose section of the bill. Entitlements under the Bill of Rights Act, the Privacy Act and the Evidence Act are all recognised.

Assuming the Search and Surveillance Bill is passed into law, and the powers described in it are applied as they were intended, fears of an Orwellian state seem to be overblown. Or at least, if such big brother powers do exist, they are articulated, rather than sourced in the legislation. That is not to say the bill is without flaws, but it is a shame that misinterpretation of the bill limited public debate on the issue. As Warren Young, Deputy President of the Law Commission, stated shortly after the introduction of the bill in 2009, criticism of the proposed legislation, “generated more heat than light”.

The Value of Privacy

Corporations are beginning to realise that protecting privacy is something that is valued by consumers. This can be seen the recent revelation that Facebook hired public relations experts to plant negative stories about Google in the media. Of all the slanderous things that Facebook could have put in the public domain, they chose to focus on the poor privacy practices of Google, thereby recognising the value that consumers place on privacy.

Last month, a European Union Data Protection working party report determined that New Zealand provides an adequate level of privacy protection regarding the processing of personal data and the free movement of such data. The report observes that in New Zealand “fair information handling is seen as good business.”

Changing the practice of multi-national corporations to better protect privacy is more likely to be achieved by talking business than morals. Until then, there is always the option of hiding away and acquiring a voluptuous quantity of cats.

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