Should we trespass on online privacy for the sake of national security?

Think back to the old days and picture this. Russian. Dressed in a double breasted winter coat and fur hat. May drink vodka and play chess, fire Soviet-style pistols and dash away on snowmobiles. He may have been a stereotype but at least in the Cold War we knew who our enemy was. The Cold War was about brinkmanship – an equilibrium. Now, the enemy could be anyone. A neighbour, a shopkeeper or – in the case of the Tsarnev brothers – a beloved son.

     No more love from Russia. The face of terrorism is changing; now it is our social media activity that falls under scrutiny.


In the face of the un-nameable threat, we – everyday people – have become the suspects. But how do you identify Mr Smith? How do you know he’s dangerous? And then once you have your case prepared how do you go about proving the risk of his intention not only to your peers but to your superior and convince the need to act.  Where does the line lie – do you trespass on his privacy for the sake of national security? What is the boundary of privacy v secrecy?

These were just a few of the topics discussed at the 22nd National Conference of the Australian Institute of Professional Intelligence Officers (AIPIO) two weeks ago. Attending as a wannabe 99 or 008 as I told my children, I was given an eye-opener into the changing risk landscape and how intelligence tactics have been forced to adapt. It is a low cost entry to the association and I would highly recommend joining to keep abreast of risk and intelligence emerging trends.

As we saw with the recent revelations over the US National Security Association’s (NSA) internet and phone surveillance programs, and alerts at American Embassies, we are all under watch. But what does this mean to a society that ‘gets off’ on being watched? A society that flocks to social media to tell hundreds if not thousands of people the most intimate details of what used to be private life?

This post was shared with an Astoria police officer via Facebook, leading to the arrest of the Oregon teen.


Whether we are uploading a photo, ‘liking’ a friend’s status, watching a YouTube video or buying shoes online, we are naïve and unthinking about the information we share online.

These sloppy social media habits have serious implications in the new online risk economy. As the AIPIO conference pointed out, the ‘WATCHCONS’ have changed. Intelligence today is no longer a question of long stakeouts, lookout posts or hidey holes. Nobody is following you – but someone may be following your social media browsing history.

Importantly too, it is not just government that is interested in your online activity. Just think Google Pizza and the host of brands and cyber criminals that spy on our online information. We even have the advent of programs like DisconnectMe which have been specifically designed to block third-party sites from tracking a person’s browsing history.

Regardless of how you feel about government spy programs, or the recent events with Snowden and Manning, the reality is our online exhibitionism is being seriously considered and evaluated by unknown eyes. With national security issues becoming less about nation force and more about the power of the individual (think 9 -11 or the Boston Marathon) we can expect greater scrutiny to be thrown on our personal online habits. The combination of an intelligence service focused on the individual versus  an increasingly vociferous and attention-seeking public is a challenge that appears overwhelming to those in charge of national security and will increasingly challenge brand managers and senior executives at board level in our corporates.

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