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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage