Considering recent events, digital privacy is once again a popular topic, and not precisely for good reasons. Although data breaches and cyber-attacks are nothing new, it is always worth stopping for one second to think about their consequences, and the role that information technologies plays in our lives. The digital era has brought us unlimited amounts of information and connectivity, with an undeniable positive impact in our quality of life. However, it has also brought a state of nearly perfect surveillance.
Comparisons with George Orwell’s novel, 1984, are already a cliché, but only because it serves as a clear point of reference to analyze our current situation. And the truth is that we are much more observed that the characters in the novel. While their government had a camera on their living room, always spying, our governments have a camera pointing at our souls (so to speak).
When we discuss privacy with other people, one of the most common arguments that is presented is that of “I don’t care about my privacy because I have nothing to hide”. Depending on your previous position on the topic, such statement might sound either as a reasonable argument or, as in my case, as a very poor excuse.
However, we cannot settle for our ideas simply based on the feeling that we are right. On the contrary, we must offer a compelling explanation to defend our position and try to convince the other person, or simply trigger some amount of reflection in both parts. I have used the excellent TED talk given by Glenn Greenwald on why privacy matters. I consider it an interesting talk and recommend it to anyone with an interest on privacy. If anything, Glenn Greenwald exposes the topic in an articulate and interesting manner.
There might be several reasons why protecting our privacy might be considered relevant, but I think that it is easier to focus on practical ones, since they can be directly explained using daily life examples.
The first argument that can be presented is that, in fact,
We do care a lot about our privacy.
Our homes have walls and our doors have locks, mostly for protection of our belongings but also for protection of our privacy. We would not like someone to come into our house and started inspecting every drawer, folder or library, even if such person did not steal or destroy anything. In the same manner, we would not like to have a video camera recording everything that we do in our living room.
As Greenwald states on his talk, we decide with who do we want to share our most personal information, whatever is friends, our physician, family, etc. There are some things that are so personal and close to us that we do not want them to be publicly known, even if they are not bad or evil or dangerous. They are ours, and that is reason enough for wanting to keep them private.
The problem with this argument when applied to the digital domain is that the perception of our online privacy is much more diluted. The data that we share online is not tangible, and the process of how it is collected, stored and the shared is transparent to us. Even if do not want anyone reading our emails, the fact that there is not a real person reading out lout every single email makes it much more difficult for us to be aware of the invasion of our personal information.
Overcoming this perception is difficult. For this purpose, it might be useful to carefully consider the potential consequences of having that information online, which leads to the second argument:
Our online life can have a direct impact on our real life.
There are many examples of this, some of which are more harmful than the others. It is no secret that recruiters already make use of social networks to analyze if an applicant is suitable for a position. Me may even tolerate this, but as this practice is extended to more and more areas, the line between our online and offline lives gets increasingly blurred. Season 4 of TV series Black Mirror dedicated an episode to this issue, in which all aspects of a person life, from bank credits, to personal relationships, was measured by a social score. Science fiction? Perhaps not as much as we might think.
Let’s go back to the phrase that triggered this discussion, “I don’t care about my privacy because I have nothing to hide”. This is like another way of saying “since I am not doing nothing bad, I am not affected by governments or companies spying on my data”. That statement sounds reasonable enough, but it encloses a perhaps overly simplistic vision of human nature. Who is bad and who is good? What happens when the notion of bad changes over time? In the same way that bringing bottles containing liquids into planes was considered harmless some years ago, it is no longer that way. Our search history is not different, as someone might decide that, in a not so distant future, looking for things such as revolution, equal rights or even democracy represents the kindle for civil disobedience.
Finally, even if we trust our governments and companies, believing wholeheartedly that they will make a good and fair use of our data, there is something that we should keep in mind:
If our data is stored somewhere, it is subject to being stolen and used against us.
We can imagine now an army of hackers hidden in a foreign country, seated in the dark with their hoodies on, trying to steal our data to sell it. While is perfectly possible, it is only one of the threats. From Internet trolls to stalkers, people can make illicit use of your online data to harass you, not only online but also at your job or even your house.
In summary, I believe that is important that we try to reflect on the effects of having our privacy exposed online. This does not mean that we must unplug the cable and isolate ourselves in a desert island with nothing else than a tin foil hat. It simply means that we can become more aware of our actions, and potentially modify our attitude towards some aspects of our digital life.
There is a lot more to talk about privacy, and we will come back to this topic in the future. I hope that this entry has provided some good amount of food for thought. At least for me it has worked that way.
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