Does the UK public really value security more than privacy?
Does the UK public really value security more than privacy?

The UK public would readily reject their privacy in favour of greater security, according to a new survey.

The survey, conducted by Cable.co.uk, polled 2,000 British adults on their opinions about online surveillance. Some 66 percent of respondents said that intercepting communications took precedence over digital privacy. Only 18 percent of respondents said that that the privacy of the general public was more valuable than its security.

“Security isn't the opposite of privacy here”, said Ed Johnson Williams, a campaigner with the Open Rights Group, adding that the notion that one need be sacrificed in pursuit of the other is not strictly true.

If the results are to be believed, the UK public might readily support Amber Rudd, the home secretary's recent calls for greater law enforcement powers to defeat encryption.

A recent terrorist attack outside the UK Parliament which killed four people has relit the debate about the balance between security and privacy, especially in light of the killer's use of encrypted messaging prior to the attack.

The home secretary's recent comments about the Westminster attacker's use of WhatsApp are “a bit of a red herring” said Johnson-Williams. Khalid Masood was apparently working alone, meaning that an investigation into his chat history would be of questionable use.

Apps which provide such encryption  were also singled out in the survey. Over half, 51 percent, said they would feel safer if WhatsApp messaging weren't encrypted. Only a quarter of respondent said they would feel less safe with the removal of encryption.

In light of last month's terrorist attacks, it might be understandable that people reacted the way that they did in the survey.

It is, however, “often a very privileged position to say you feel safer with reduced communication security”, said Johnson Williams: Journalists, lawyers, activists, environmentalists and people running away from abusive relationships are just a selection of people who need privacy in their day to day lives and, “To a certain extent, we have to look beyond ourselves and our immediate situation when we think about it”.

Emily Taylor, an associate fellow of the International Security Department at Chatham House thinks that the survey may not give a full picture.

With a gun to their head, asks Taylor, who is going to choose the privacy of his or her WhatsApp communication over their immediate safety?  

In the light of a recent terror attack, people might be quite happy to say they'd rather have their security than their privacy. The fact that the results were pulled from that context means that “you've got take them with a pinch of salt.”

Other surveys with larger sample sizes tend to give more nuanced answers, added Taylor. They often show not just people's preference for privacy but also their conflicted feelings: “A well designed questionnaire will give space for the conflicts that we all feel”.

These results might show that people want security more than they do privacy, but concludes Taylor, “do they really want their emails scanned for advertising, do they really want to have their location tracked and kept? Do they really want profiling done on the basis of their (social media) ‘likes'?”