Government snooping will hurt e-commerce

Users will buy less online if they think Big Brother is watching, say human rights activists

Fears about online privacy will reduce the UK's spending on e-commerce by £4.6bn over the next five years, say human rights advocates. A campaign is being prepared against government efforts to use the current crisis as a pretext to bring in measures such as digital ID cards.

"People will use the Internet with more neurosis, if they think they are being snooped on," said Simon Davies, founder of human rights pressure group Privacy International, whose research with the London School of Economics produced the £4.6bn figure.

"Governments want ID cards so they can streamline administration," said Davies, arguing that the response to terrorism is merely a pretext. "When they have been considered before, they have been found to be unworkable. Why are they suddenly workable now?"

ID cards are to be feared because they create a single electronic identity, said Davies, which can be used to link up the activities of government departments.

On previous occasions, the police have rejected the idea of ID cards, Davies told a conference in London organised by online news source Spiked. Unless backed by biometric data, the cards would be too easy to forge, and the public is unlikely to accept routine fingerprinting - "unless it is rushed through. In peacetime no one would accept it."

The meeting, attended by at least one UK member of parliament, echoed Davies' concerns, although the privacy community is divided about how to preserve privacy from commercial entities, and whether commercial prying is different from government snooping.

"Before the terrorist attacks, people saw this as a consumer rights issue," said Sandy Starr of Spiked. "They were concerned about spam." This played into governments' hands, by asking for legislation.

The distinction between public and private snooping is blurred, said Davies, because governments can subpoena information held by private companies, and government-held information can leak into the private sector since much of the processing is outsourced.

Peter Bottomley MP warned that privacy and human rights conflict with efforts to prevent crime, and there are risks because of the limitations of data profiling. "I got someone out of jail who was flying to Belfast 12 hours after a bomb went off. Yes, he was Irish, and he had red hair, but he didn't do it."

Some might argue that the privacy advocates' response is as knee-jerk as the government's, but there are genuine concerns about efforts by governments to retain data such as Web click-streams indefinitely, They might reveal terrorist activity, but they could be misused, said delegates.

"Privacy is our safeguard against government control," said Davies. "Anonymity is the brake lining."

Although the UK government has yet to come out with a concrete ID card proposal, a group led by Davies is working on a response, starting with a meeting next week. Interested parties can email idcard@privacy.org.

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