Too many presidents – how to protect data privacy rights

A young business analyst is secretly ordered by the intelligence services to breach personal data privacy rights.

This story covers ethical problems of “snooping” by the intelligence services.

Fiction, 3 pages (830 words) plus commentary
Adobe stock image of ornate roofs, to illustrate a story on data privacy rights.
Versailles Palace, France. (Adobe stock image.)

“Too many presidents”

Lisette drew the short straw. It was not random, it was predetermined by others. “You tell him, tell him all,” they said. There was five of them, and they were standing in three quarters of a circle about her and talking in rapid-fire French. The only escape was behind her, under the marble mantlepiece that dated back to Louis XVI, and then up the chimney like Father Noël after delivering an unwanted present. Probably she was the only one of them who was slim enough to try, though she would have lost her elegance and emerged covered in soot.

“Why me?” Lisette asked.

“Because you’re a woman. You have the smile. And you are the trusted business analyst that he assigned to our team. He will believe you.”

“Madeleine, you are also a woman. You are my Senior.”

“Yes, but …” Madeleine gestured theatrically to her jowls and sagging breasts.

“This is a travesty of fairness,” Lisette complained. “Gastion gave me orders to help you.”

“Help us? By building a back door into our computers for the intelligence people? If we do what he asks, it is Voomph! Our privacy is gone, it is the ethics of the fox, and if our customers learn of it then there will be big trouble.” Madeleine made a gesture like a balloon bursting. “So, you must tell him that this demand is a big surprise, a catastrophe. We have consulted with people in our offices in America. They agree.”

“I must tell him, Voomph?” Lisette’s eyes widened in horror as she repeated Madeleine’s balloon burst. “But the intelligence people must be able to see details of terrorists and spies.”

“Yes, but with this technology they can see everyone’s most private details. Yours, mine, all of us. There is no protection.”

Lisette was about to say more but outside the gilded doors there was the sound of leather-soled feet on the wooden floor. “Attention! He comes.”

Gastion made an entrance. He pushed open the gilt-edged doors of the room, reaching out so that there would be a gap big enough for three people. “Gastion is a man of presence”, were the words Lisette used when describing him. He walked forwards in a rolling sequence so that his weight shifted from one side to the other. Three paces away from Lisette, he stopped, placed his feet apart and folded his arms so they rested above his belly. The light from one of the dusty chandeliers created a glow on his head. “What?” he asked.

Lisette shuffled forwards. She could hear the rubber soles of her shoes squeaking on the polished floor. It felt like she was back at school, coming onto the stage to make an announcement. She straightened her shoulders, clenched her hands behind her back, and lifted her chin.

“We have an announcement,” she declared. She listened to the sound of her own voice. She was too hesitant. She needed to portray certainty. “We have made a detailed study of the technical changes demanded by the intelligence agencies. They demand secret information about people, but they insist the names of their suspects must remain secret. It means they can access everyone’s records.”

She continued: “Also, we have studied the data privacy rights demanded by law and our company president. The viewpoints are different. It is our determination that reconciliation is impossible.”

“Why do you say this now?” His tone was sceptic. “Last week you made a good progress report. There was no hint of this.” He used the formal French version of “you”.

“We didn’t know last week. It was only when our technicians studied the detail that they saw the problem. Then I compared it with the statements of our own president.”

“The president of our company is involved?”

“Yes. The president of our company says the names must be independently authorised by our internal security team or by lawyers. But the president of France says we must trust the intelligence services. But in our offices in America, it is American law, and the President of America says the records of Americans must be protected.” She shook her head. “It is a matter of too many presidents.”

“What is the solution?”

“A solution, sir? We do not presume to argue with presidents.”

“Lisette. You are the analyst, your job was to investigate anomalies and find an option for me. So tell me, what shall I tell our company president?”

Lisette was shocked. It was like her father asking her how to shave. “A solution? Perhaps we make a new technology, so if the intelligence services want information on a suspect, they must provide information for our lawyers to check in secret.”

“The intelligence services will not accept this. They will tell our company president that our lawyers have insufficient security clearance, and we must trust their lawyers.”

“Sir, then it is for the presidents to decide. What is the purpose of having so many presidents if they cannot resolve a problem?”

Commentary on data privacy rights

Lisette, and the team about her, realised that a backdoor for the intelligence services could be seriously abused.

Do suspects deserve privacy? The proposition in the story, is that only the intelligence services and the lawyers know. People working in industry should not know because the information could be abused.

Can we trust the intelligence services to police themselves? Governments can potentially use independent lawyers as checks, but how “independent” are the lawyers?

In joint jurisdictions, should lawyers from both governments be involved? In the example, both French and Americans should give permission. (The practical complexities could be considerable.)

See also, the ethical challenges of hidden agendas of intelligence services, and the needs of the state to protect individuals.

Commentary on managing unknown unknowns

This story was written to illustrate ideas set out in 4 ways to manage unknown unknowns and their opportunities, which expands on practical ways of managing Donald Rumsfold’s “unknown unknowns” – see and original recording. There are other approaches. The story “Too many presidents” shows Gastion’s political approach to managing potential disasters. For example, see the stories The secret devil’s advocate and An agency man.

In the story, Lisette was assigned to the team by Gastion because he had suspicions of an unknown-unknown – he called them anomalies. He did not bias her work by telling her. In terms of the 4 ways of managing unknown-unknowns, he was the “sponsor” and she was the “investigator” and provided a way forward. The entire sequence was evidently rapid – perhaps a week from start to end.

This story was revised on 7th June 2024 to tighten the story-telling and commentaries.