Snoopers and telescreens – a bad week for
privacy

As an Apple enthusiast, I have to admit I’ve never had much time for Microsoft. Even before I switched to Mac five years ago, I always had a degree of contempt for the company and its products. Bill Gates’ company always seemed to me sluggish, dirigiste, extortionate, lacking innovation, high on control freakery and, of course, deeply uncool.

Even that did not prepare me for the XBOX One, however. You have probably already heard the comparisons to the telescreens in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The device is constantly connected to the internet, the camera and microphone are constantly on and use highly advanced facial and voice recognition programmes to respond to individual users. The worst thing is, the console will simply not work without these things.

So, a whole new level of control-freakery, then. There is one crucial difference between Orwell’s telescreens and XBOX One, of course. No-one forcing you to buy one. As worrying as these elements are, anyone thinking of buying one should by now know what they’re getting in for. The great thing about free competition, free contract and a free press is, if consumers don’t like this they’ll flock en masse to another console – forcing Microsoft to either change tact or see a massive arm of their company fold.

But, sadly, we live in a time where the boundaries between private companies and governments are becoming more and more blurred. Microsoft may not be monitoring or recording people’s living rooms and bedrooms via the XBOX One (though I personally would never take the risk) but the trouble with introducing that kind of technology is it can be easily exploited by paranoid governments.

The EU Data Retention Directive, which came into force in 2006, already requires telecommunications providers to provide ‘details such as IP address and time of use of every email, phone call and text message sent or received’ when a request is made through court. The fact the state is using its coercive powers to force companies to spend money on storing this information is bad enough but the manner in which it may be abused – not to mention expanded – is of real concern.

And, of course, that is exactly what Home Secretary Theresa May – the latest in a long line of authoritarian nutcases – is attempting to do. Apart from costing £1.8bn if passed, the bill would also require all browsing history and internet gaming to be stored.

Tory friends have countered the civil liberties argument with the riposte that ‘why would the government care about your browsing history? It’s useless information’, which is essentially a reiteration of the ‘nothing to fear, nothing to hide’ line. But the problem with this argument is you never know who that government is going to be.

You may not be an enemy of the state now but that depends entirely on who is running that state. Do we really want to be setting up a system that could be so easily abused? As FA Hayek once said, the power to do good is always also the power to do evil. How long before the demands are made to access the XBOX One’s video recorder to catch video game playing terrorists?