The Attributer’s Blog – Justified

Sometimes when applying SABSA Business Attributes to a business scenario we need to consider some deeply philosophical and moral issues. This time we shall examine the attribute ‘justified’ in the context of what sort of security surveillance should we allow our governments to carry out and how does this conflict with the right of citizens to personal privacy.

Recently on 3rd November 2014 Robert Hannigan took over as the new Director of the Government Communications Headquarters in the UK (GCHQ). Next day he published an Opinion Piece in the Financial Times. See .

The main thrust of this opinion piece is that new terrorist organisations (such as ISIS) are attracting young idealistic converts who have never experienced life without the internet and hence they have a level of internet savvy-ness never before available to terrorist groups. These people are on their home ground in cyberspace. They are ‘digital natives’ whereas most of the people in government office and the security services (and most citizens) are ‘digital immigrants’. See:,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf .

Mr Hannigan tells us that governments have little chance of success in fighting against terrorism and organised crime unless we as citizens are willing to sacrifice personal privacy. He also complains that the Western technology companies who largely control the use of the internet are not cooperating enough with Western governments by not providing the kind of surveillance that the government security agencies would find most helpful. He continues:

“To those of us who have to tackle the depressing end of human behaviour on the internet, it can seem that some technology companies are in denial about its misuse. I suspect most ordinary users of the internet are ahead of them: they have strong views on the ethics of companies, whether on taxation, child protection or privacy; they do not want the media platforms they use with their friends and families to facilitate murder or child abuse.”

Good point, but it does beg several questions: What is misuse? What defines an ‘ordinary user’? Should a Western technology company have loyalty only to its customers in Western democracies or to its wider international customer base? Where should the line be drawn between governments entitled to ask for surveillance and those not so entitled? Every nation or group claiming nation status (such as ISIS) will argue that their cause is ‘justified’ because they have ‘God on their side’ – but who’s God and which ‘side’ should an international technology company serve? Is a technology company (such as Google) even ‘justified’ in taking sides or should it remain apolitical and amoral?

Mr Hannigan says: “As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the spectacular creation that is the world wide web, we need a new deal between democratic governments and the technology companies in the area of protecting our citizens. It should be a deal rooted in the democratic values we share. That means addressing some uncomfortable truths.”

However, there are good historical reasons for citizens to have only conditional trust in their own governments, and because of this, good law-abiding citizens feel entitled to some personal privacy, including privacy from government surveillance of their online activities. Not all Western governments have always been benign, or indeed democratic. Who can predict the future?

So can SABSA thinking help with making these “urgent and difficult decisions”? Increasingly the challenge laid down by Mr Hannigan will become more relevant to all commercial enterprises that leverage digital technology to enable their businesses. They all will need to consider these issues and decide at what level security surveillance and cooperation with government agencies is ‘justified’. This type of ethical debate is necessary for society to agree on how it will make use of digital technologies in the future and what actions are ‘justified’. As always, SABSA does not attempt to provide prescriptive answers, but ensures that all the important questions are properly addressed and that the decisions made are rational, traceable and fair, and indeed, ‘justified’.

The Attributer

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