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.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for historical child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

Operation Midland, which was set-up to check claims that boys were abused in the 1970s and 80s by a high-level group of paedophiles including politicians, military figures and members of law enforcement agencies, has had up to 40 detectives assigned to it and a similar investigation. Admittedly some of these were murder and major crimes officers but that’s still a large contingent.

In fact if such squads were formed for every historical case the Metropolitan Police would be overwhelmed as last year alone it received reports from nearly 1100 adults – many of them well past retirement age –that they were sexually assaulted when children.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.