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Privacy is still alive and kicking in the digital age

Blog. Our lives are lived in data. Data crossing borders and connected in virtual space. Most often, it appears, we live in open and too easily accessible data networks. States and corporations are watching us through data, and we are watching each other through data. What does individual privacy mean in this data saturated environment?

Privacy is like trust and security; much easier to define when you don’t have it. We know exactly what trust and security are when we find ourselves in a precarious situation where we feel threatened, a situation which reveals someone else’s lie or dishonest actions. It’s something that can make us feel angry, insecure and most importantly, disempowered.

The same is true of privacy; it’s hard to put a finger on it before we realize it’s missing. More and more of us are beginning to sense the lack of privacy in our digital daily lives — and to understand what we are missing and how we feel about it.

When we talk about the need for a more human-centric and ethical approach to today’s data-saturated environments, we are first and foremost talking about balancing the powers embedded in society. Individual privacy is not the only societal value under pressure in the current data-saturated infrastructure. The effects of data practices without ethics can be manifold — unjust treatment, discrimination and unequal opportunities. But privacy is at its core. It’s the needle on the gauge of society’s power balance.

In a well-functioning democracy, those in power are open and transparent about how they exercise their power. One should not expect transparency from individuals. The more transparent people are, the more vulnerable they become.

With the current digital infrastructure, we are heading in the wrong direction: Individuals are becoming more and more transparent, open to different types of control, manipulation and discrimination, while the powerful — government, industry and organizations — are more and more closed off. Freedom, individual independence and democracy are fundamental reasons why the individual right to privacy is something we should all care about.

Privacy is a universal human right penned in international conventions, declarations and charters that were formalized at a time in history when private life was the default. There were clear lines and limits between private homes and public streets and buildings, between a private person and the public authorities and spaces. It was the letter in the sealed envelope. Freedom, individual independence and democracy are fundamental reasons why the individual right to privacy is something we should all care about.

But the digital media’s foothold in the world has, as Professor Joshua Meyrowitz illustrated in 1986 in his book No Sense of Place, slowly but steadily been breaking down walls between the public and private spheres. First when radio and television brought the public sphere into the private living room, and later when the internet and mobile phones allowed us to literally feel public life vibrating silently in our pockets.

Machines started going through our private emails and conversations. The envelope was opened. We increasingly unfold our identities, our lives, in online social networking spaces and privacy is something we must actively opt in to. At the same time, these online spaces create our identities; they limit us or create opportunities and privacy becomes a tool of empowerment.

Privacy is Empowerment
In reality, privacy is empowerment. The fact that we actively use digital media and share details about ourselves does not mean that private life has no value, that it’s no longer a social norm, as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was once quoted as saying. It just means that privacy has new conditions. To have a private life, an image or an identity online is about empowerment.
Empowerment means you can decide who knows what about you and when — now and in the future — and that you can exercise control over the outcomes springing from this knowledge.

Privacy is a characteristic unique to the individual. What we choose to disclose or not disclose, and in which contexts, is deeply personal and distinctive to us as separate entities. Privacy is unique to cultures and individuals and, exactly for this reason, it matters. It empowers each of us to act in our own specific capacity.

Privacy is an everyday social practice. Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, has said that “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

According to this logic, privacy is only about the secrets, the sultry or even criminal details. But if we turn this logic around and look at what we are missing if we do not have a private life or do not have the basic features that make privacy possible, the argument fades.

In a tangible world parallel, we get up every morning and cover our bodies with clothes and close the door to go to the toilet, yet no one would argue we are doing something we shouldn’t. Our everyday practices are in themselves proof that privacy is a principle that allows us to act as independent individuals in a social space.

Privacy is a Democratic Value
It is free thought and independence. Studies show that people change their behavior when they feel watched. They seek information less freely, act and express themselves less freely, are afraid to stand out and go against the flow. Trevor Hughes, CEO of the International Association of Privacy Professionals, IAPP, has a good explanation of the importance of privacy: “As humans, we seek solitude when we feel vulnerable. Sometimes, this is related to physical vulnerability. We seek to exclude ourselves from our societies when we are sick, or in moments of particular risk (think: sleeping, toileting, sex, etc.). But we also seek to exclude ourselves when we feel emotionally vulnerable. We seek private space to explore new identities or ideas.”

Privacy and the space to think and act without feeling watched is a prerequisite for individuals’ ability to act independently and freely. A private life ensures that each person can create his or her own unique identity and determine his or her life’s direction — the right to fail along the way or to go against the tide. The right to privacy is thus a prerequisite for active democracy.

And last but certainly not least, privacy is the prerequisite for free innovation and creativity. As law professor Julie E. Cohen put it: “Innovation requires room to tinker, and therefore thrives most fully in an environment that values and preserves spaces for tinkering.”

This post was first published in TechChrunch 25th December 2016