Since the times of "controlled conversations", almost everything has changed. From one phone booth for the whole community, the telephone moved to our bags and pockets. Once being a household object, it became an inseparable companion – a confidante for all our matters, even the most intimate ones. From one of many communication channels, it has transformed into a unique window to the digital world. It became a guarantee of continuous connection. And it gave us a certainty that somewhere in the telecommunications network we will leave a digital trace. This makes a mobile phone an perfect surveillance tool. Thus, everything has changed, apart from the need for control itself, which owing to contemporary technology has gained an entirely new dimension.
The state does not need wiretapping anymore to know how its citizens live, with whom they make contact, what they are planning.
The state does not need wiretapping anymore to know how its citizens live, with whom they make contact, what they are planning. Connecting a telephone and a specific number to a person, which in the digital reality already became a standard, results in a situation in which increasingly more information can be obtained on the basis of the so-called transmission data. Who we maintain regular contacts with, how wide our social network is, what are our schemes of movement – all that can be gathered without tampering with the content of the message. But that's not all. Research shows that telecommunications data also allow to profile and predict our behaviours in the future. In 95% cases, on the basis of data collected during only one month, scientists managed to predict the location of a given person within subsequent 12 hours.
Prosecution authorities and intelligence agencies in many countries cannot imagine their work without access to that information. That is why since 2006, in the European Union there has been a binding regime of collecting and retaining (so-called retention) of telecommunications data "just in case". Political controversies are raised not so much over the very data retention, but the principles of making data available and the models of controlling the controllers. In this discussion the basic problem is being erased: the fact that preventive collection of data about each one of us breaks one of the most important principles of a democratic state – the presumption of innocence.
In a social dimension, the fact that every act of communication leaves a trace (in practice, not one but several dozen traces) and that gathering information of that kind is a standard - changes a lot. Lawyer's, doctor's or journalist's secrecy gain a distressingly relative character. Intimate relationships, business connections, lobbying activities and political contacts – all these activities become very clear for everyone who is capable of gaining access to our billings and transmission data. Whereas in a situation in which the data are stored by each operator, and access to them is offered to a whole set of institutions (courts, public prosecutor's offices, the police and intelligence agencies) it is not difficult to cause a leak, or to abuse the information of that sort.
Basic tracking techniques – specifying those places in which a phone is logging to the network, checking billings, collecting digital traces on the Internet – have long ceased to be the domain reserved for public services.
Basic tracking techniques – specifying the places in which a phone is logging to the network, checking billings, collecting digital traces on the Internet – have long ceased to be the domain reserved for public services. They are notoriously used by wary employers, spouses in the process of a divorce, or provident parents – sometimes with the knowledge of those who are being followed, frequently with the aid of a court, advocate or a private detective, often with a breach of the law. Telecommunications supervision in the hands of private persons or companies principally is connected with the power and subordination relation: in a professional sense, in a family, or simply arising from financial or technological superiority.
What do we gain owing to this interference into our private life? Many people repeat one word like a mantra: "security". Despite there being no evidence for the existence of a correlation between preventive data collection and an increase in crime detection, a premonition that this is essential acquires the status of a dogma. A similar belief accompanies jealous spouses and preoccupied parents, who in the access to billings and the possibilities offered by geolocation seek relief for their fears. Both these groups do not gain much more than an illusion of grasping reality, the complexity and unpredictability of which slips out of the telecommunications matrix.
At the Panoptykon Foundation, we are convinced that this vicious circle of limiting privacy for the sake of an illusion of security may be – and has to be – broken; that prosecution authorities do not need to know about every citizen in order to effectively prosecute those few who glaringly violate the law; finally, that social problems and a lack of trust in interpersonal relationships will not disappear owing to the tracking of digital traces, and may only grow stronger. That is why for over two years we have been running an intensive campaign against obligatory collection of telecommunications data and the uncontrolled (by any independent body) access to them of the police and intelligence agencies. We disclose statistics, expose misuse, but also talk with practitioners and look for systemic solutions.