Freedom and Privacy on the Net

The exponential growth and control of data is under debate, between the private interests of companies and the rights of users.

Berlin, hole in the wall at Reichstag, February 5, 1990.

Berlin, hole in the wall at Reichstag, February 5, 1990. Hartmut Reiche, Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Mass data traffic affects our lives on a daily basis. Personal data are sensitive material – information and data that online companies routinely (and often illicitly) extract from the digital environment. As thousands of internet activists have shown, the collection of metadata is a mass global surveillance strategy that is used even by governments. Against this background, the internet has ceased to be the space of anonymity and freedom it once was, and has now become a highly monitored sphere of extreme surveillance. Data traffic puts users on guard and highlights the need to defend privacy as a social value that guarantees our internet rights and freedoms.

The origins of the concept

Although the word privacy is often used in everyday language as well as in philosophical, political, and legal discussions, there is no clear-cut meaning for the term. It has meant different things to different people at different times.

Experts say that the idea of privacy as we know it only dates back 150 years. We know that human beings have an instinctive desire for privacy. For 3000 years, different cultures almost always prioritised protection and wealth over privacy. Many anthropologists, including Margaret Mead, have studied and shown the means by which different cultures approached and protected it. Privacy is a value shared by all cultures, although what is considered to belong to the private realm can vary from culture to culture. The right to privacy was recognised in ancient Athens: Aristotle made a distinction between polis – the public sphere of political activity – and oikos, the sphere of private life. But the first parameters of what would become the right to privacy were fought out in 18th century English courts, through lawsuits involving unusual private property claims. The distinction between the public and the private was also discussed by the philosophers John Stuart Mill and John Locke.

In 1890, in the United States, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis published a famous essay entitled “The Right to Privacy”, which sparked a far-reaching debate. The essay focused on the invasion of privacy that was starting to make itself felt as a result of then-recent inventions such as photography and the press. Warren and Brandeis discussed the “right to be let alone”, and concluded that a wide range of cases could be protected under a more general right to privacy, which would include thoughts and feelings that could be shared with others. Warren and Brandeis laid the foundations for a concept of privacy that came to be known as control of information about oneself.

One useful way of classifying concepts relating to privacy is to look at all the different debates that exist around it:

  1. The right to be let alone
  2. The option to limit access to information about oneself
  3. The right to secrecy, or being able to hide information from others
  4. Control over how others use information about oneself
  5. The four states of privacy: Solitude, Intimacy, Anonymity, and Reserve
  6. Privacy as the sphere of the individual (personhood) and autonomy
  7. Privacy as a prerequisite for personal growth and identity
  8. Intimacy

Writing, the printing press, and – to a much greater extent – dissemination through modern technological media have enormously increased the amount of mediated information that exists. Privacy has become a concern and a right to be defended.

Big data

Advances in digital technology, ever-faster processors, the falling cost of sensors, and the capacity to process enormous databases have led to the proliferation of databases containing all kinds of data. And the software required to analyse this data is no longer just accessible to corporations and governments, it is within the reach of almost any individual or institution.

Data sets are proliferating because data is collected by all kinds of increasingly affordable devices: mobiles with sensors, aerial devices, automatic logs, cameras, microphones, radio frequency identification (RFID) readers, and wireless sensor readers, to name just a few. The per-capita data storage capacity worldwide has doubled every forty months since the 1980s. In 2013, the total amount of information stored in the world was estimated to be 1,200 exabytes, of which less than 2% were not digital.

As for what can be done with these data: the scale is so big that analysing them allows researchers to obtain results that would be impossible with small samples. Something similar occurs with nanotechnology: when you work at the molecular level, the behaviour of physical properties may change. Inversely, when you dramatically increase the scale of the data you work with, it opens up new possibilities that were not available when working with smaller quantities or with samples that could be biased due to their small size.

Mass data processing allowed scientists to decode the human genome, for example. A process that originally took thirteen years and over three billion dollars can now be carried out in less than a day, for less than a thousand dollars. These advances make it possible to diagnose illnesses even before a baby is born, and open up new research directions for cancer and other illnesses.

But there are other examples of data analysis that make us feel uncomfortable, particularly when they involve our personal data. A study presented in March this year by Stanford data scientists showed that mobile phone metadata alone could bring up a surprising amount of sensitive information (such as health data) about individuals. The study looked at the records of more than 250,000 calls and 1.2 million text messages from 800 volunteers. Researchers were able to infer that one person suffered from cardiac arrhythmia, for example, and that another kept a semi-automatic rifle at home.

Edward Snowden

Against this background, one morning in June 2013, former NSA analyst Edward Snowden disclosed the ongoing global surveillance of citizens by the NSA in collaboration with its counterparts in Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

The type and extent of surveillance he revealed surpassed anything a paranoid conspiracy theorist could have imagined. It confirmed the mass collection of all types of not just metadata but also content from electronic communications, and the intelligence agencies’ capacity to access any communication at any moment. Edward Snowden published and continues to publish thousands of internal NSA and CIA documents that prove his disclosures.

Snowden described one of the NSA programmes as follows: “I, sitting at my desk, [could] wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.” And that’s just telephones. The NSA also had backdoors installed in the routers and even the servers of the companies that handle the online personal data and everyday communications of most citizens: Facebook, Google, Apple, Yahoo.

Snowden’s revelations launched a new era: the internet is no longer the space of anonymity and freedom it once was. The so-called “Snowden effect” had a political impact, but its impact was principally economic. The lack of confidence in US companies led users to shift to foreign firms. Daniel Castro, an analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, estimated that the US cloud computing industry could lose 35 billion dollars in 2016.

Technology companies began to feel pressure from its users, and quickly understood that they had to be on their side if they didn’t want to lose them: WhatsApp announced default encryption of all its chats, Google encouraged its users to use HTTPS and other security functionalities and introduced an information policy for privacy in its services, and the Apple iOS 8 update included encryption for everything inside the telephone.

Security analysts estimate that technology companies have collectively invested millions or even billions of dollars in new generation encryption for user services. Security is now a “feature”. 

Human CCTV - Privacy mask by Brett Wilde.

Human CCTV – Privacy mask by Brett Wilde. No CCTV, CC-BY-NC 3.0.

Public by default

The national security versus personal privacy debate reopened at a time when millions of people make their data public on the internet and the number of mobile phones has overtaken the number of humans on the planet. We are living in a time when we are public by default and private through effort (Danah Boyd dixit).

According to surveys by the Pew Research Center, a large majority of American adults believe that consumers have lost control over personal information. Many people choose to ignore the issue, saying “they can spy on me if they want to, I have nothing to hide”. But this is a fallacious argument that was already introduced years ago by the owners of some of the companies that make money from our data. One of them was Mark Zuckerberg, who received a deluge of criticism after making Facebook privacy settings more open by default, and telling the The Guardian that “privacy is no longer a social norm”.

Snowden’s response easily dismantles the “I have nothing to hide” reasoning: “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

In a highly recommended TED Talk , Glenn Greenwald said that to be a free and fulfilled human being it is essential to “have a place that we can go and be free of the judgemental eyes of other people”, and that the reason we seek privacy is that all of us – not just terrorists, all of us – have things to hide. Things that we’re willing to tell our physician or our lawyer or our psychologist or our spouse but we would be mortified for the rest of the world to learn.

Freedom is very closely linked to the right to privacy. When we know we are being watched, our behaviour changes. The range of behavioural options shrinks drastically when we think somebody is watching us. This aspect of human nature is acknowledged by the social sciences, literature, and religion. Dozens of psychological studies show that a person’s behaviour becomes much more conformist and accommodating simply because they know they are being watched.

Many experts agree that privacy is a prerequisite for developing a sense of personal identity and that it plays a key role in the development of the human personality. Privacy barriers are instrumental in this process, because they define the limits of the self.

There is general consensus among researchers that the the importance of privacy is justified because of the interests it protects: personal information, personal space, personal decisions, the protection of freedom and autonomy in a democratic society.

Recent studies have further developed this idea, looking at the value of privacy not just from the point of view of the individual interests it protects, but also its inalienable social value. According to Daniel Solove, the value of privacy should be understood in terms of its contribution to society. Solove argues that privacy promotes and favours the moral autonomy of citizens, a central requirement of democracies. A society without respect for privacy for oneself and others becomes, he says, a “suffocating society”.

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Freedom and Privacy on the Net