A few weeks ago, I wrote how privacy activists encourage internet users to provide fake data instead of their personal details. Such a practice, if it becomes widespread, would undermine a lot of business models that aim to profit from collecting personal data. In the meantime, the most amazing thing has happened. A civil servant working for the UK Government, with responsibility for security, has also recommended that internet users provide fake data. Andy Smith is the Public Sector Technical Services Authority (PSTSA) Security Manager at the Cabinet Office (they love long job titles in government). Smith was speaking at the 2012 conference on Parliament and the Internet, and he was asked about identity theft. This is what he said:
When you put information on the internet, do not use your real name, your real date of birth… when you are putting information on social networking sites don’t put real combinations of information, because it can be used against you.
Smith clarified that there was some instances where you should provide the truthful details – such as when paying your tax online. However, his advice was unusually frank and it can be summarized thus: if you keep giving your personal data to more and more people who simply do not need it, you increase the risk that this data will be collated and then used to hurt you. It is also worth noting that Smith was responding to a questioner who told a personal anecdote about her identity being stolen, even though she had taken great pains to protect her personal data, and had herself used fake names and fake dates of birth.
The most regrettable aspect of this story is that Andy Smith’s advice is sound, but other people, for various reasons, do not want to listen. Simon Milner, Facebook head of policy in the British Isles, said he had a ‘vigorous chat’ with Mr Smith to persuade him to revise his view. Of course Facebook wants people to provide accurate data – they intend to make money from it. It is less clear how much they should have to pay in compensation when people suffer as a result. Not that Facebook ever violates privacy, does it? And Labour MP Helen Goodman said Mr Smith’s comments were ‘totally outrageous’ and that internet anonymity ‘promotes crime’. Helen Goodman is not alone in her opinion. The belief that anonymity should be outlawed in order to prevent crime is also the position of the Chinese Communist Party. For myself, I struggle to see how a non-criminal, like me, is ‘promoting crime’ if I refuse to share my name with people who have no good reason to know it. The total amount of crime I will commit is exactly nil, either way. That is, I will not be committing a crime unless some fool like Helen Goodman MP passes a law saying it is illegal for me to lie on the internet. As ever, such laws are aimed at persecuting and controlling decent people. Criminals not only rob, cheat, and murder – they are liars too. It seems unlikely that a ban on lying would discourage any of the robbing, cheating and murdering. After all, these are the people who steal identities. Goodman’s point that internet anonymity is a danger to children might seem more reasonable if was not for the fact that the biggest topical news story in the UK is how a children’s TV presenter abused kids for over 40 years, with 300 victims now coming forward. Everybody knew who he was, and supposedly lots of people knew what he was doing, so anonymity was not the issue in that case. Apparently, when confronted with the allegations, he denied any wrongdoing! Of course, the other problem with criminalizing the failure to tell the truth is that anybody can make a mistake. This includes Helen Goodman MP who ‘mistakenly’ claimed expenses to stay in a hotel, even though the hotel stay occurred before she was elected.
Information is power. When an organization demands your information, you have to ask yourself: do you want that organization to be more powerful? Do you trust it with that power? Do you trust it to take care of your data? It makes a refreshing change that a government apparatchik has admitted what we all know: not everyone should be trusted with your personal details, and lying is a simple way to sidestep their demands. Fancy that! A government employee who honestly proposes that lying might solve some problems. What will be the next wonder – perhaps an organization that really does place adequate controls over personal data? I doubt it. It is hard enough to get organizations to admit how fallible they are. If big business and authorities insist on pretending there is no risk to the individual, then the individual should remember one simple fact: they are being lied to.