Privacy International
Harmit Kambo – campaigns director

Privacy International was founded 26 years ago when the internet was barely a footnote in our everyday lives. Campaigns director Harmit Kambo tells Techworld the organisation recognised, even back then, that with increasing technological sophistication there were going to be greater threats to our personal privacy.

Although it has an office in London, Privacy International currently has 16 partners that it works with on national issues worldwide, and it also works at the EU and UN level. The organisation is funded by charitable trusts and foundations and receives grants from statutory bodies. It turns away funding from private business.

In addition to its work examining the actions of governments, the organisation also researches, investigates and exposes the producing, selling and distribution of surveillance technology. It has a lot on its plate.

“There’s a whole industrial complex around surveillance in the private sector,” Kambo tells me.

“As the issues continued to evolve and mutate, one thing remains – technology is providing more and more means to undermine our privacy,” he continues.

“That’s something we rail against. We think personal privacy has been a very under-recognised human right. Until Privacy International arrived, and has worked hard to put privacy on the agenda, it wasn’t a human right that was given much consideration or credence.”

Data and control in a post-Snowden world

Before the Snowden leaks, when Privacy International raised the alarm about government surveillance, many of its critics labelled the group paranoid – a common thread for others proselytising digital rights early on.

“Many people thought we were paranoid,” Kambo says. “That there was no real issue. After June 2013, public perception has significantly shifted and recognises there is an issue here.”

But it’s “not just governments” that are breaching our right to privacy. The group also spends its time examining how household names use big data in ways their users are not usually aware.

Last year, for example, Facebook manipulated the emotions of some users by curating what they saw on their newsfeed. That’s concerning enough on its own, but the potential of the end results chime even more with something from sci-fi dystopia.

“The information we are presented with and selected for us can direct, influence and change our behaviour,” Kambo says. “This is being done without our consent. People were not giving their consent to have this data feed altered in that way.”

“What’s frightening about it is that this is about you as an individual, predicting your behaviour, and telling you what they think you should consume. Amazon already tells you that people who read this also read that. People find that useful.

“But how would we feel about Amazon telling you – based on data aggregated about you, where you live in terms of your postcode, in terms of your socio-economic status, established through your buying habits – that you should perhaps read 50 Shades of Gray, by E. L. James and someone else should be reading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James?”

“You end up getting into an aspect of control and controlling people’s behaviour,” he says. “We have to take back control of our data. We can’t be manipulated in the way companies increasingly want to in order to become more powerful in the way they help us consume.”

People care about privacy

“I think the single biggest issue we face is about public attitudes towards privacy – people do care about privacy,” Kambo says. “Time and again we look at data from public polling and it’s overwhelmingly clear people care about personal privacy, but at the same time some are resigned to the idea privacy intrusions are unavoidable and that we can’t do anything about it. We want to change that perception. That’s one big challenge.”

Another challenge for Privacy International is squaring up to the argument of privacy versus security – that it’s impossible to have both.

“Governments across the world try to posit that we either have security or have privacy, they turn it into a binary argument and stoke up public fear,” Kambo says. “We simply do not accept this security versus privacy paradigm. We believe in security as well. But the evidence is very clear that mass surveillance does not increase our security – there is plenty of evidence to suggest it decreases our security. It puts more hay on the haystack and it makes the needles more difficult to find.”

Kambo goes on to explain that perpetrators of terror attacks had largely been known to intelligence groups, but this was the result of targeted surveillance and other methods. “There is evidence to suggest mass surveillance makes more noise for them, more information to sift through,” he says. “If you look at it in that context, that actually makes us less safe.”