SC Magazine talks to MP who calls for a debate on internet privacy and fines for online companies

The Google Street View case, where it collected the personal web activity from unsecured WiFi networks, has raised plenty of questions on several issues throughout 2010.

From the morals of accidentally harvesting personal data, to the likes of Privacy International calling for a criminal investigation, to the more obvious dilemma of why these WiFi networks were unsecured in the first place, it seems like the story is not going to die down any time soon.

Recently, Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, claimed that parliament is not doing enough to investigate privacy invasion by internet companies, and there are many cases of privacy invasion by internet companies that are yet to be uncovered, and that parliamentarians need to be much more alive to the issue.

At a debate reported by the Guardian he said: “I suspect there's a lot of privacy encroachment going on which is yet to be uncovered and that these are just a couple of stories we've just seen in the media. The reason I believe there should be an inquiry into the role of the internet and its relationship to individual liberty is because there is so much going on under the surface, tracking what we do on the internet, tracking what we say on the internet, all for commercial purposes.”

I caught up with Robert this week, and began by asking him what his initial thoughts were when he first heard about the Google Street View case. He said: “When I first heard about it, even as someone who loves Google and uses Google products, I was outraged because I feel that this is a huge infringement on people's personal privacy.

“It is a case of we get rid of the last government's surveillance society and we end up with a new one courtesy of internet companies and we have a form of privatised surveillance society.”

Halfon told me that he was on the public bill committee that repealed the identity cards, a sweeping privacy move made by the coalition government when it first came to power. He said that he feels we are suffering from far too much surveillance, and that identity cards was too far in the direction against civil liberties and against individual freedom.

I asked do we not need CCTV for monitoring, and criminal databases? He said: “The last government was frivolous with our civil liberties, and yes you have to have some CCTV as it is helpful in towns and particularly in detecting the 7/7 terrorists, so in that sense it can be very useful. Nevertheless, it has got to be moderate and in tune with the democratic rights of the majority, and the last government imposed one civil liberty upon another until we redressed the balance in my view.”

He also pointed to an instance of BT trawling people's Facebook accounts looking for defamatory comments, saying that he suspected Google Street View is the tip of the iceberg, but there are all sorts of stuff going on that we do not know about.

“The fact that a major internet company which everyone on the internet uses felt that it was able without any sense of responsibility to map people's personal WiFi I find to be unbelievable. It is also very worrying, because where do you stop?

A recent statement from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) said that it had assessed samples of the payload data inadvertently collected, and the information it saw does not include meaningful personal details that could be linked to an identifiable person.

It said that on the basis of the samples seen, it was satisfied that it is unlikely that Google will have captured significant amounts of personal data, and there is no evidence that the data captured by Google has caused or could cause any individual detriment.

Asked for his thoughts, Halfon said: “The fact is that they still map people's personal WiFi without their permission, and that the whole thing is about asking people's permission before putting people's private property on the web.”

So should there have been some sort of consent, and how could it have been done? He said: “They should just ask their customers, they could have said ‘is your house okay to put on our site'. I don't mind if they asked me.

“This is the problem, the companies have become so big, so successful, so clever that they have become incredibly corporate, it is like something out of a John Grisham novel, and the rights of individuals are not just being trampled upon, but being ignored as they don't even take it into consideration.”

Pointing to the Australian commissioner's requirements on an apology, which was delivered via the Google blog, Halfon said an apology was fine, but it should really give some sort of compensation to internet users, such as sending every internet user a £10 voucher, or something similar.

“Companies need to know that if they do this, at the moment there are no boundaries on what is allowed and what is not, there needs to be a bill of rights for people, a kind of contract that can be agreed by internet companies and by individuals, and if that contract is infringed upon companies like Google would be fined heavily,” he said.

So what would this contract involve? Halfon said that the contract would come out of an enquiry from the Information Commissioner, or perhaps something that internet companies can draw up voluntarily. If that does not work then government should step in, and they should be looking at clear laws on how individual rights can be protected.

Halfon also said that there needs to be a full House of Commons debate on this. He said that not only has he tabled two motions on it, but he has written to the chairman of the Backbench Committee, which considers all debates in parliament, and asked the Leader of the House for their intervention as well.

Asked if there has been any progress, Halfon said: “The government have been responsive, the Leader of the House is very positive and encouraged the people who do the debates in the House of Commons to debate on it, and the Chairman of the Backbench Committee has also been positive that after the recess in October, there will be a serious debate in the House of Commons about the role of the internet and individual privacy, and the surveillance society.”

He concluded by claiming that he ‘feels very strongly about this', and as user of Google products and as someone who loves the internet, it was important to tackle this now. “I am writing to the Information Commissioner to say that I am unhappy with what has gone on and say that there needs to be an urgent enquiry into this issue,” he said. 

With parliament now in recess and two months away from conference season, the dilemma may be shaping up for a full blown debate if Halfon gets his way, and while some of the points made about refunds and contracts are both unlikely and difficult to police, this story is unlikely to go away.

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