How much of ourselves do we reveal on the web?

How much of ourselves do we reveal on the web?

Onto the stage at the City Recital Hall last month swept British philosopher A.C. Grayling, accompanied by his leonine locks.

Without notes he talked for a flawless hour about the fine line between the private and public self, and the threats to this delicate contrivance posed by technology.

It was a sort of warm-up act for the Sydney Writers' Festival, which kicks off in earnest on Monday. Quite frequently the warm-up act steals the show - in the way that the drag queen used to upstage Lovelace Watkins at Rooty Hill RSL.

<em>Illustration: Simon Letch</em>

Illustration: Simon Letch

Grayling's thesis is that critical in defining us as human beings is the ability to control that part of ourselves we show to the world. This ability to manage our public and private beings is under threat, like never before. In an online world, even in our own homes at night, our wants, desires and secrets are being logged.

Among the announcements made last week by the Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, were improvements and reforms to strengthen privacy laws and, in the next breath, reviewing and updating national security legislation.

The two run headlong into each other.

The privacy reforms include ways of making it easier for consumers to access and correct information about them held online and beefing up the powers of the Privacy Commissioner in the compliance area.

The national security ''reforms'' were benignly wrapped up in ''public consultation'' tissue. The Attorney-General wants a Parliament joint committee to hold public hearings on potential reforms to ''ensure our national security capability can evolve to meet emerging threats''.

Further down in the announcement there was this bit: ''Lawful access to telecommunications will be reviewed to ensure that vital investigative tools are not lost as telecommunications providers change their business practices and begin to delete data more regularly.''

The Herald technology reporter Ben Grubb swooped on that paragraph with a story that surely sent shivers up the nation's collective spine. He said that any computer, phone or tablet connected to the internet could soon have its web history logged and retained for up to two years, so that it could be accessible by law enforcement agencies.

He's been tracking this development since 2010, when he received a heavily redacted document under freedom of information from the government disclosing the ''web snoop'' proposal.

In fact, even though the former attorney-general Robert McClelland denied it, the government has been consulting with the internet industry over storage of browsing history of everyone in the country.

The Attorney-General's Department was concerned that to release the document in full ''may lead to premature unnecessary debate and could potentially prejudice and impede government decision making''.

The draft terms of reference for the parliamentary committee have been swirling around Canberra, and it involves examination of the data retention proposals for telecommunications providers.

It's early days, but we know that in the European Union, telcos in some countries are required to retain different categories of online data for between six months and two years. Even if the requirement is limited to the identification of the source of the communication and its destination, by means of determining the relevant internet provider addresses, it would not be difficult to determine who has been looking at what.

In the face of this, all the carefully manicured privacy protocols would amount to nought. Nagging questions remain. How secure would this retained data be? Would it be beyond hacking? Would it extend to emails and photos uploaded to social media sites? Why should the government want to collect information about citizens who are suspected of nothing?

A fully functioning modern citizen is embedded in the digital world and the free flow of information. It's both our enlightenment and our dark shadow.

Grayling has difficulty finding the boundaries about what is proper to keep private and what rights the state has to know more, in the name of national security.

People talk about the right to be forgotten, or to have bits of their biography scrubbed from the record. Maybe in an analogue world that was possible. In the digital one, it is unachievable.

A few weeks ago The Economist raised some perplexing questions about what happens to our digital property when we die. Who owns our blogs, our photos, our emails? It's not easy to find out because service providers have different rules and rarely are they stated clearly in the 400 pages of six-point terms and conditions.

For instance, music downloaded by iTunes is held under licence which, on death, can be revoked. You cannot bequeath your digital music library to Aunty Mame, or anyone else.

Google's Gmail will give copies of a deceased's emails to executors, but maybe the thought of having relatives looking at your correspondence is too disturbing to contemplate.

Apple, apparently, deletes all emails and data held on its iCloud service once you are dead. At least it's doing something to protect the right to be forgotten.

Facebook is peculiar, as we know. The last terms of service I saw said that while you own your uploads, you're granting Facebook ''a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post''. You may own it, but Facebook reserves the right to do whatever it likes with your content.

Twitter, on the other hand, told a New York court only this week, in a prosecution of a Wall Street Occupier, that it won't hand over the accused's Twitter stream to the district attorney, because ''users own their tweets''.

Essentially we have lost the ability to control that part of ourselves which, in Grayling's terms, we want to keep from the world.

It's disturbing to think that someone might be able to reach down from the clouds and discover that you have read this column.

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