Your most valuable commodity?

Personal information.

Forget shares in Royal Mail or bricks and mortar: your most precious possession these days is your name, date of birth and other personal information, according to a panel of privacy experts.

"Personal information is very valuable these days," said John Cooper QC, "social media silk" and barrister at 25 Bedford Row, speaking at the recent "Whose internet is it anyway?" debate. "It’s probably the most valuable commodity now that a lot of people can’t afford to buy a house."

The panel, which also included Spear’s columnist Robert Amsterdam, media lawyer David Allen Green and law professor Doug Cassel, looked at questions like "Who controls the internet?’" and "What really happens in cyberspace when you log off and shut down?"

Doug Cassel, Presidential Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School, explained how a central service is able to collect all personal information, enabling governments to compile a profile on you via the system, which is reportedly more effective than the FBI actually following you around. "Improved guidelines on the protection of privacy and personal data are needed as increased internet exposure threatens human rights," he said.

Current easy access to personal details via the internet poses three main threats: one from rogue parties who intercept personal information for malicious purposes, a crime otherwise known as data or identity theft, and one from companies you give your details to but who then sell them on.

As Amsterdam explains, cloud storage of information by companies such as Amazon and Google has become a problem and needs to be regulated; our details are traded between companies without our prior consent. "The question is, who will bid on this information first?" Amsterdam says. "A discussion about the interception of private information needs to be had."

The third threat is from central governments who also have access to our personal information – and, like a scene from Minority Report, they believe that poaching these details can help prevent crimes yet uncommitted, even if this enhanced level of snooping is obviously in violation of your personal freedom and privacy rights. The notion of innocent till proven guilty is in such cases out of the window.

It’s not hard to imagine how this could lead to a serious abuse of power. ‘Governments can misuse the Terrorism Act to charge people who have not committed an act of terrorism,’ says John Cooper QC.

Robert Amsterdam, senior partner of law firm Amsterdam & Partners, confirms that this misuse of power is a big problem: ‘This leads to uncontrolled power over the individual and their movements and means they can freeze a person’s assets in accordance with anti terrorist legislation,’ he says, citing the example of one of his past clients, Kim DotCom of MegaUpload, a German-Finnish internet entrepreneur, businessman and hacker residing in New Zealand, whose businesses and assets were seized by the New Zealand authorities.

"He was attacked in his home and was taken to jail without a hearing," says Amsterdam. "Kim later discovered that he was a victim of "Five Eyes" [an international surveillance network comprising New Zealand, Australia, Canada, UK and US] and the President of New Zealand then had to publicly apologise for spying on him."

A new, improved set of internet regulations would aim to keep this form of data access and management by authorities, as well as by companies and individuals, under control.

This piece first appeared on Spear's Magazine

Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.