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  • Lawrence Bailey

Say hello to the future and goodbye to privacy

Someone clever once wrote that the true test for maintaining privacy is not about the public interest involved but the potential for gossip.

In that context, making sure traps stay shut is a particularly tough call, especially in politics.

What gets said in private meetings seldom stays private for long. Whether it’s sensitive Brexit dealings or uncomplimentary stuff spoken in the White House in relation to developing nations, word always gets out if someone is sufficiently motivated. So-called 'friends' seem to have no qualms in sharing your private racist text messages either - especially if you also happen to be in a relationship with a political figure. Not even the lofty media are immune from such ambushes, as a couple of veteran BBC broadcasters found out when their jokey conversation about a colleague was recorded without their knowledge. You might argue that these people should forego privacy when the public interest is concerned.

But under what circumstances and who decides, one asks. Whatever your view, the rationale in such instances increasingly seems to be something that's evolving by default rather than design. CCTV and cyber-snooping makes the UK one of the most monitored western nations in terms of state surveillance. But even the extensive tracking systems at GCHQ look patchy compared to the degree to which the commercial sector likes to keep tabs on us.

Last weekend a major change in the way banks manage our data came into effect. Called ‘Open Banking’, it’s likely to have a massive impact on us as customers, both good and possibly very bad.

The new regulations require banks to share financial data such as transaction history and spending patterns with other regulated third-parties, provided that the account holder requests it.

It all sounds like a fairly minor step change that could help us shop around for better and cheaper banking services, and that’s true.

However, as critics point out Open Banking has the potential to strip power from the consumer by introducing data-access ‘spirals’ that make it nearly impossible to hold someone to account if anything goes awry.

There is also the fear that fraudsters will cash in on the new arrangements by fooling customers into clicking links that disclose login information in the belief that they are using Open Banking.

All this comes on top of revelations about internet advert tracking outfits. Your average commercial website has about half a dozen of these lurking in the background.

Anyway, some big players have been caught with its hands in the cookie jar after being cited for secretly collecting user details by hacking so-called ‘password managers’. This refers to the clever bit on your internet browser that can remember your login details for you.

Researchers at Princeton’s Centre for IT Policy, claim to have found ‘invisible’ code on more than 1,000 top sites and which are designed to capture people’s email addresses without their knowledge.

Up until now, the worst that could happen is a splurge of junk mail or tailored ads popping up in your newsfeed. Once deregulated banking takes hold though, the same algorithms could enable unauthorised third parties to access masses of personal data.

The upshot is that consumers buying items ‘blind’ online could only be shown an individually calculated price based on their known spending patterns rather than a genuinely competitive offer. Some say that sort of thing is already happening.

So, say hello to the future and goodbye to privacy.

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