The big meaning behind big data

This week, I attended an event staged by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, at which a collection of journalists and academics met to discuss the implications of big data for responsible journalism and government. Their thoughts on the topic generally expressed outrage and shock at the extent of the NSA/GCHQ scandal, as well as a defence of editors’ decisions to publish news stories that reveal potentially sensitive information about national security. So, to stay true to my intentions in an earlier post, it would do well to explore some of these ideas.

It seems especially clear to me that the question over these governmental agencies hinges on the typical distinction between legitimacy and justification, to which I shall return in due course. However, firstly, one should note that debating the latter is when values and the inevitable trade-off between them involve themselves. John Micklethwait, editor of The Economist, raised the conflict between the two by pointing to the importance of how we define our notion of liberty. The history of thought on the concept is quite simply too enormous to address here, but it was John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, to whom Micklethwait chose to allude. Mill’s idea that people should only have power exerted over them in order to “prevent harm to others” paints the NSA’s actions in a suspicious light, and highlights what we are talking about when we grapple with just how intrusive we think security agencies are allowed to be. Security is desirable, but when we are all scrutinised and monitored by an organisation beyond our control, it seems that our liberty is certainly being constrained for reasons not permitted by Mill’s principle. It is constrained in that the power of the state is able to have unwarranted influence over us.

At this point I should like to visit the comments made by Sir Iain Lobban in the public hearing two weeks ago. Sir Iain offered the characteristic explanation for GCHQ’s conduct and mass collection of data: the organisation needs to collect all the information it does so that it can sift through the “hayfield” and find what is pertinent to countering terror. I do not disagree for a moment with the assertion that, for now, the employees of these security agencies do not view it in their interests to utilise ordinary citizens’ data for malicious gain. It is certainly for the benefit of their operations that journalists do not reveal their secrets. In a world of global press exposure, a strategic interaction against terrorism is undoubtedly damaged by making more information available to the opposition.

But why, then, is it, as I believe, so absolutely crucial that the press does leak such information and report the truth about these organisations? Why are we so suspicious of them even though their staff and directors likely work tirelessly for the national interest, and, more importantly, our safety? Legitimacy versus justification. Perhaps, just perhaps, the deranged direction the rise of such technology as PRISM and Google Glass is taking us in will protect our interests of security more than they encroach on our liberty. Yet even such a case of justification is crippled by the absolute and unfathomable lack of legitimacy behind these projects. A damaging point raised at the RISJ talk asked ‘how can the security chiefs maintain this argument when we certainly did not consent to their actions?’ The potential for harm that a scheme of mass data-collection entails is colossal, and the extent to which harm occurs is at the moment entirely left to the discretion and moral character of the employees of GCHQ and the NSA. The danger in such a situation is clear to all, I think.

The security operation therefore needs to be brought within the bounds of democratic control and legitimation. Oversight has failed abysmally thus far. Thought that takes the operation of security agencies much further under the remit of the letter of the law is required as a starting point if nothing else. Internal reform of the system to place less unauthorised power at the fingertips of mysterious agencies, and greatly increased transparency of the judicial process that monitors those agencies’ conduct, is fundamentally important.

At this point it is clear where journalism can play a role in the period prior to a better system. Journalism is the final chance to bring accountability to an opaque State. If citizens are to be categorically denied the opportunity to award democratic legitimacy to covert operations that influence their daily lives, then they must be informed, and given a voice, through writing. The State that protects us today must be accountable if we are to be certain that it will protect us tomorrow.

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