World-renowned privacy advocate, Simon Davies, recently spoke at Webster University in Geneva about online privacy at their 5th annual Media Trends Conference. In front of an attentive audience of about eighty participants from UN organizations, NGOs, the press and academia, Davies shared his experience as a champion of privacy protection through workshops and panel discussions. During his twenty-five years challenging government and corporate use of technology to spy on citizens, he has become the bête noire of intelligence services in private and public sectors alike.
Challenging authority since childhood
Davies began his personal quest to hold authorities accountable long before he founded Privacy International in 1990, a government surveillance watchdog. At the age of fourteen he had already campaigned against the introduction of an ‘unfair stop-and-search regime for the students’ at his school. Government use of information technologies to collect information about citizens eventually led him to take a closer look at Internet privacy. A pretext to public security, corporations working alongside governments monitored mobile communications, emails and even people’s bedrooms through undetectable webcam hacking. What he felt was a disregard for the individual right to privacy motivated Davies, who now travels the world, from Western democracies to obscure, despotic regimes, informing people that there is no such thing as a well-kept secret.
A bothersome use of the Media
Realizing that media thrive on stories of underdogs and dissident trouble-makers, Davies learned to leverage the power of the press, spotlighting issues related to government abuse and other questionable practices such as collecting and saving meta-data, which is every bit of available information (private or public) that can be found about an individual. Living through Herculean challenges and brushing off death threats, Davies managed to “destroy the plans by several governments to introduce national identity cards”, which he claims are filled with invasive technology. He was eventually able to abolish such projects in the United Kingdom, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia.
Davies’ masterful use of media keeps him out of harm’s way. Several technology companies have threatened to take legal action against him but to date none have followed through for fear of exposing themselves to bad press, says Davies. As for threats received on his life, “you just accept those risks if you work in certain countries, though each time it gets harder to live with the nightmares,” he says.
Davies’ presentations make it clear that his fight is not about a blanket rejection of technology. Rather it is about the level of transparency and accountability that countries and companies are willing to maintain. “I know there are examples of surveillance assisting public security. We just need the security and police agencies to be more transparent and accountable so we can judge whether the surveillance is justified.”
Spreading the word
“Absolutely crucial” were the words Davies chooses to describe academia’s involvement in educating society on surveillance and privacy issues. Conferences bringing together international personalities and young minds, such as this Media Trends Conference at Webster University, are the breeding ground for new advocates. “Without events such as the one at Webster the state of privacy in the world would be much worse,” says Davies.
With a growing media and communications faculty, Webster University is gaining traction and recognition through their annual media conference as well as the quality of the professors involved in the programme. Next year’s Media Trends Conference will be held in mid-April. The conference theme and speakers will be announced in the coming months. For more information about Webster University Conferences, visit www.webster.ch
Article by Douma Fisher