Clegg’s speech may mean the state intrudes less – but we must not forget ongoing invasions of privacy by the private sector

PietroPietro Paganini, PhD is the Executive Director of the European Privacy

Yesterday, Alex highlighted Nick Clegg’s speech in which he reaffirmed his party’s – and I suppose, this government’s – dedication to preserving our individual liberties. It was, as one individual on ConservativeHome commented,

as if the deputy prime minister had “just cut and pasted Big Brother Watch's manifesto.”

Amongst his pledges, Clegg stated that the government would end the plethora of intrusive IT projects, ranging from ID cards to a national identity register, as well as ensuring that CCTV was “properly regulated.” In pledging to bring “an end to spying on people,” it’s clear Clegg has signaled his intent to form a new individual liberties contract between the state and the people. However, as the European Privacy Association and Big Brother Watch celebrate a tiny victory in public life, attention continues be drawn to events in the private realm.

The Daily Telegraph has a piece on Google’s Eric Schmidt and his attendance at the Zeitgeist conference in London. Following revelations that Google’s Streetview had been collecting private information from WiFi networks Schmidt remarked that it was “highly unlikely” that Google captured any “useful” information. Although Google has denied deliberately storing a user’s private internet traffic, they did intend, as the Financial Times claims, to “collect network names and serial numbers of WiFi hardware.” Google’s justification is that an unsecured WiFi network is akin to a public broadcast.

Meanwhile the Information Commissioner’s Office has called on Google to destroy all of the information they harvested through Streetview. And therein lies the problem. If we want to shed a light on Google’s activities, why on earth should we want Google to destroy this information? In addition, far from halting any further investigations, the ICO must continue to pursue this matter and ensure that Google comes clean about their activities and all the information they gathered. Questions concerning whether an unsecured network is “public”, is a completely different issue altogether, and one that the Justice Select Committee may have an interest in pursuing.

Big Brother Watch has documented public concerns surrounding Streetview on a number of occasions. But the storage of personal data is an issue of grave concern and a sinister development. The European Privacy Association, Big Brother Watch and others have spent a great deal of time fighting against state bent on intruding into our daily lives. But it doesn’t stop there. The storage of personal data by a private behemoth – without one’s knowledge – is just as concerning.

A few utterances from Mr. Schmidt does not go far enough to assuage public concern. We need to see action.