Mobile politics

Do mobile phones invade our privacy? British MPs give their views.

Sandy Starr

Topics Science & Tech

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The spiked/O2 online debate Do mobile phones invade our privacy?, which explores the implications for privacy of new developments such as camera phones, location-based services, data retention and spam, has attracted a number of lively responses from readers. But what do policymakers think about all this?

I spoke to four MPs, from all of the main political parties, all of whom have a particular interest in this issue. Ian Gibson is the Labour MP for Norwich North and chair of the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee; Phil Willis is the Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mobile Communications. Peter Bottomley, Conservative MP for Worthing West, and Derek Wyatt, Labour MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, both hold the position of vice-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mobile Communications.

What, for these MPs, were the most significant new developments in mobile phone technology, and what broader benefits would these developments bring for society? Phil Willis pointed to ‘the 3G technology which is now appearing much more significantly on mobile phones, and the ability to go beyond using the phone as a purely oral communication device – you can use it now as a multifaceted piece of technology, which can deal not only with oral communications but also with text, with picture, and indeed interfacing with utilities, interfacing with other services’. Ian Gibson also thought that the new capabilities of mobiles were significant: ‘Perhaps the main advantage, from the public’s point of view, is the ability to photograph with them.’ Derek Wyatt was more sceptical: ‘3G is interesting, but it may be a cul de sac.’

Do any of these new developments pose a threat to individuals’ privacy? Ian Gibson replied: ‘Yes, very much so, quite obviously. That’s why the crime of happy slapping is now on the agenda.’ Phil Willis also thought that the answer to my question was self-evidently yes: ‘Of course. All communication development has a threat as well as an opportunity. The threat is very much in the way in which information is used, the way in which information is stored, and the way in which information is distributed’. However, he continued, ‘I think that the benefits of that significantly outweigh the deficits. And the need is to get good self-regulation first, and if not self-regulation, then to get statutory legislation to regulate what happens. But that would be a very last resort, as far as I’m concerned. I think we want to have responsible use and responsible users.’

Derek Wyatt was concerned that ‘mobile identity theft is increasing’. But Peter Bottomley did not think that new developments in mobile phone technology posed a threat to individuals’ privacy: ‘No, because it’s not compulsory to either make or receive calls, or even to have a mobile phone. It’s no more of a threat to your privacy than to have your name and address in a phone book. If you go back slightly further in time, my mother always used to say “whoever thought that phones were private?”. In her day, not only could everybody else in the house hear you on the phone, but everybody else on the line could too. And you always assumed that the operator was listening, in case he could help.’

To what extent are the MPs’ concerns about mobile phones shared by the general public? I asked each MP whether their constituents had raised concerns about mobile phones and privacy, and I received wildly divergent responses. Gibson and Bottomley replied in the negative, Gibson responding that his constituents had only come to him with concerns ‘about the siting of masts – about health hazards particularly, planning permission and all that stuff’. Similarly, Bottomley replied: ‘Not about privacy. One or two reckon that their brains and health are severely affected. They normally expect it to be the mast, rather than the mobile phone.’

Willis, on the other hand, said that his constituents were very concerned: ‘I live and work in a constituency which has got very significant use not only of mobile phones, but also the higher levels of technology. We’re one of the highest 3G areas in the country. What I’m seeing is a number of concerns, first of all as far as children are concerned, with mobile phone bullying. And that’s not just simply text bullying – it’s also about fashion bullying, where children are being ridiculed for not having the latest technology. It’s rather like the trainers of five years ago. Now, mobile phones are fashion accessories as well as technological devices.

‘Second, there’s a growing concern about health risks, particularly with very young children. I’ve had parents asking my advice for five-year olds, as to whether when they go to school for the first time they should also have their mobile phones so that they can communicate with Mum and Dad, and the health risks associated with that. And the third element is the illicit downloading of information onto mobile phones, where particularly pornography and other unsolicited information is appearing on mobile phones – not just simply of young people, but of people generally.’

Wyatt responded in a similar vein, adding an account of his own adverse experiences: ‘Bullying by texting has exacerbated the bullying issue, made it worse. It’s very intimidating. And stolen identity. I had a BlackBerry, which I’m not using at the moment. But four weeks ago, I was getting a thousand emails a day on it. Someone had stolen my identity. That took some resolving, I can tell you. They stole my email address, and then spammed me by email. I don’t know how they did it. And the trouble is, you report it to the police, and they’re not interested. There’s an issue of a lack of training of police, and a lack of understanding. The thousand emails would come on my computer as well. It just broke my system down, broke it every day.’

To what extent has the discussion surrounding the London terror attacks, from ‘citizen reporters’ to the government’s ability to track emails and phone messages, made these MPs consider the issue of mobile phones? ‘There is no doubt that last week’s horrific events demonstrated the very positive effects of mobile telephony,’ said Phil Willis. ‘The ability of security services etc to access phone records demonstrates the degree to which all of have now succumbed to covert surveillance. The need to balance personal freedoms with public good is one of the key debates of our day. It is a debate that will intensify with the introduction of ID cards a possible distraction from the power of ISPs and mobile operators.’

It seems that mobile phones provoke a whole range of different discussions. Jumbled together with concerns over privacy are worries about bullying, pornography, downloading, spam received on handheld computing devices, and vaguely-defined (and scientifically unproven) health risks. Yet there is also a real awareness of the technological progress embodied in mobile phones, and the potential this has for society; and, as evidenced by the sheer number of mobile phones about, people love their phones despite their unease with certain aspects of the technology and the way it is used. So what, if anything, could be done to safeguard the privacy of mobile phone users, without compromising these benefits? Again, there was in interesting divergence between the MPs’ responses.

Willis recommended self-regulation by mobile companies: ‘Our All Party Parliamentary Group on Mobile Communications meets with the industry at least twice a year. And one of the things that we’re very concerned about is the companies working together, to create technological solutions to issues which affect them as much as they do the consumers. I think it’s a win/win situation for companies who not only see themselves as providers of a service, but to interface with the Nokias and the Samsungs to make sure that they’ve got technological solutions on phones, to be able to deal with everything from theft to unsolicited content.’

Wyatt was more pessimistic, and suggested the creation of a new body to deal with such issues: ‘I’m not sure I know. I guess there’s a technical solution somewhere, but it’ll be hacked as soon as there is a solution. There seems to be a very serious hacker’s world out there, quite pernicious. As we go wireless, we need a world body, made up of academics, politicians and players to meet every year. Maybe we could also do that online. Politicians need to understand where the market is. The market needs to understand the irritation that constituents find. If we live in separate cells, we won’t do this.’

Bottomley was far more relaxed about the subject: ‘Except for the times when the police need to use their powers to find out where a phone is being used, I don’t think the average person needs to worry too much about the fact that there’s a record of the geographical links through which their phone went. It’s no more than my credit card showing where I bought my petrol.’

And Gibson gave the pithiest response of all: ‘What you need is some system whereby you turn it off, and keep it off.’

A seminar related to the spiked/O2 debate Do mobile phones invade our privacy? will take place in central London on the evening of Wednesday 20 July, at which contributors to the debate and other experts in this field will discuss the issue. For further details and booking, click here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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