A leading freedom of expression activist has said that the collection of metadata by governments poses a threat to people’s privacy that the general public is not taking seriously.

Jillian York, director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Freedom Foundation, told Crikey politics editor Bernard Keane last month that “privacy is a privilege. It should be a right, but in reality it’s most often a privilege … Privacy is a privilege that most people are not afforded.”

Speaking at an event hosted by Electronic Frontiers Australia at Electron Workshop in North Melbourne, York says the US government hasn’t proven why mass surveillance is necessary, especially as it is not effective at preventing crime. “I think the best example of this is the Boston Marathon, where we had a very horrific act of terrorism where some of those people were actually under FBI surveillance. Presumably the NSA had all the data, and they were not able to prevent that.”

Surveillance by governments can also have consequences for social change, says York. “The impact of surveillance on free expression and association is so severe. The idea that historically there are movements that all of the organising around the movements happened by doing things that were not allowed to be said in public, by organising in ways that were behind closed doors, women’s rights, gay rights, all of these things happened because we were not being watched 24/7.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey