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UCL snags head of Europol for a seminar on privacy

Debates ahoy in late January

By Alexander J Martin, 30 Nov 2016

The head of Europol will be contributing to a seminar at UCL on "the state of the current privacy landscape", which will run in January.

The event – Privacy Online and Offline: The Citizen, the Personal and the Public Interest – is being run by UCL's Institute of Brand and Innovation Law. The talks will take place over 23-24 January, and will include contributions from Rob Wainwright, British civil servant and the current director of Europol.

Also contributing is Steven J Murdoch, the security researcher who revealed that GCHQ's VoIP protocol, MIKEY-SAKKE, which was intended for government use, had actually been designed to "allow undetectable and unauditable mass surveillance".

Course convener Amanda Harcourt said the range of speakers aims to make their attendees think, "That is what universities are for, surely?"

UCL is a fitting location for the seminar as it holds the "auto-icon" of English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham – his pseudo-mummified body remains on display in a glass case. Bentham regarded both absolute surveillance and transparency as good for society, arguing that by recording every human activity and the effects of those activities, individuals would be forced to act in a way that was "most pleasing" to the public.

His prison design, the Panopticon, is lauded as an architectural allegory to this philosophy. Inmates' cells are arranged in a circle around a single central observation tower. The prisoners do not know when they are being watched and as such would act as if they were under constant surveillance.

This model for controlling behaviour was critically expanded upon by French philosopher Michel Foucault, who argued that Bentham's design for the Panopticon was actually the perfect metaphor for modern Western societies, where the idea of constantly being observed meant that it was now no longer necessary for governments to exercise violence to dominate their citizens.

This is not just a matter of privacy and its limits online, Harcourt told The Register, "but also in the day-to-day world of what we used to be able to call the 'private citizen'."

As per Bentham, there are legitimate and compassionate reasons to seek to surveil and encourage transparency. "A parent might want to know what kind of exchanges their pre-teen is having on the internet," offered Harcourt, "which is why we have asked Lisa Felton, chair of the Online Family Safety Institute, to contribute.

"But equally, neighbour disputes may have their source in privacy issues. Marriage breakdown might equally involve considerations of privacy where, say, private investigators have to serve their clients but act within the law," all of which include numerous fields of expertise that require knowledge of what privacy is.

"It isn't just lawyers, either, who find themselves having to consider privacy," said Harcourt. "Companies need to balance their corporate interests with those of their employees as well as the public. Computer scientists have expressed their concerns about the new Investigatory Powers Act and they have useful perspectives to share in relation to, say, the safety of online banking or the security of medical records." ®

The Register - Independent news and views for the tech community. Part of Situation Publishing