Should removal of privacy be a condition of travel?

Are you prepared to hand over the passwords to your social media accounts to the USA authorities as a condition of wanting to go to America for a holiday, for business, to see family or to study? Probably not?

Today’s news features a story that the US Government may consider asking UK travellers to the country to hand over their passwords as part of the extreme vetting process. This is not a new story. This is not a story solely related to the Trump Administration, indeed this idea was proposed last year when Obama was still President, but irrespective of which Administration is making these proposals the issue remains the same, a desire to snoop into the lives of the many in order to possibly eek out the minority.

Obviously the purpose of this proposal is to see if anyone has been privately messaging with the intention of committing harm or plotting a criminal or terrorist activity, that’s quite clear. But what of the rest of us, what of those who use private messaging on social media as a way of communicating simply with loved ones or who use it as a tool to run a business? Is it right, is it fair, is it morally sound to require a family hoping to visit Disneyland for a 2 week holiday to hand over the key to what is for more and more of us a fundamental part of our lives?

To those who say “well I have nothing to hide, let them look”, what if the request was more physical? What if a week before you were to travel to Florida or New York or Los Angeles, the US authorities asked to pop round to your house for an hour to see where you live, what you do, what’s in your fridge, meet the neighbours and arrange a drink or two with your friends, work colleagues, babysitter, doctor, lawyer etc would you let them, would you help them make the arrangements to meet your mates?

Demanding access to our passwords is the digital equivalent of the home visit. It is a way of seeing not just who we know, what we do and where we go, but what we think, what we like, dislike, worry or care about.

The privacy concerns are one thing, but what about the actual viability of what is being proposed? How likely is it to actually work? When people routinely use password managers which randomise passwords, or simply hand over a password and then change it, how will the scheme work then? And what will happen when passwords become obsolete and we use biometrics in some form to access our online world? How will society react when countries use sensitive biometrics for this purpose?

Whilst the necessity to keep us safe is of course important, once again we see the approach being considered one of cracking a nut with a sledgehammer and putting all citizens, most of which are thoroughly law abiding placed in a position where they are expected to say ok to snooping because of fear of the minority.

The long term impact were these plans to become a reality are complex and far reaching. We should all be standing up and expressing our concern, not just to protect our privacy but to say clearly that a condition of travel shouldn’t be handing over the key to our lives.