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Reality check: We should not expect our communications to remain private

Use the best tools at your disposal – and expect the worst

Register Debate Welcome to the latest Register Debate in which writers discuss technology topics, and you the reader choose the winning argument. The format is simple: we propose a motion, the arguments for the motion will run this Monday and Wednesday, and the arguments against on Tuesday and Thursday. During the week you can cast your vote on which side you support using the poll embedded below, choosing whether you're in favour or against the motion. The final score will be announced on Friday, revealing whether the for or against argument was most popular.

This week's motion is: In the digital age, we should not expect our communications to remain private.

Kicking off the debate is Joe Fay, who argues FOR the motion.

Should your communications remain private in the digital age? Of course. Your absolute right to privacy has been endorsed by the United Nations, no less.

To be clear, Article 12 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks."

It would be hard to argue against that, mid-twentieth century default pronouns notwithstanding. Just as it would be hard to deny the other 29 clauses in the declaration, which span our rights to life, liberty and security of person, equality before the law, and to freedom of movement, to own property, and the freedom of opinion and expression.

It's securing and enforcing these rights that's the problem.

Who do you trust to ensure the privacy of your communications? The UK is just one country among many that was steaming open its citizens' post and tapping their phones long before the UN came into existence. The internet has simply given the "authorities" a much broader canvas to project their paranoia onto – whether justified or not.

The UK is just one country among many that was steaming open its citizens' post and tapping their phones long before the UN came into existence

And whatever your thoughts about government intrusion, what about all the other people who want to rifle through your digital correspondence and goods, whether that's to steal personal information, purloin intellectual property, or worse.

But you know all this, of course. It's almost a decade since the Snowden leaks revealed the extent of massive state surveillance by the US and its allies. More recently, MI5 warned British tech professionals and scientists to be "switched on" to the attentions of malign nation states, whether that's due to ransomware or IP theft.

Of course, individuals and organisations now have far more in their armoury to counter such threats. Before Snowden, using encryption tools was for the unduly paranoid. Now, it's something your in-laws might raise when it comes to deciding between WhatsApp and Signal for arranging family get-togethers.

We know what the threat is. But the tools to counter them are in our reach. Can we, therefore, expect our digital communications to remain private?

No. Because we still have to deal with human weakness. That may be the inability to work out which sort of data should be encrypted in the first place, or a fat thumb selecting send all. It could be the weakness that means an organisation compromises on security tooling on the basis of cost, or simply calculates that it can make a massive profit by compromising your security from the outset.

And because national organisations – ours and theirs – and criminal groups – ours and theirs – are all in an arms race to secure their access to your blueprints, credit card details, personal communications, and compromising photos.

Saying if you don't want it on the internet, don't put it up there is too trite a response. But saying beware of the threat, and the tools and practices to mitigate it, shouldn't be. Even the best of us can be caught out. It's all a calculated risk.

Accepting the current reality doesn't mean you can't still hanker after a world where your privacy would indeed be respected. But here and now, vote for reality, and acknowledge that we should never expect our communications to be private. No matter how much we want them to be. ®

Joe Fay has been covering the technology industry for 30 years and has edited publications in London and San Francisco

Cast your vote below. We'll close the poll on Thursday night and publish the final result on Friday. You can track the debate's progress here.

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