By Jake Okechukwu Effoduh
I have seen, read and heard many tech experts insinuate that privacy is a dead letter. As far back as 1999, the CEO of Sun Microsystems said “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” Elon Musk has expressed his lack of concern for privacy and even suggested that most average people don’t need to care about their privacy. Michael Kosinski, Professor at Stanford University essentially agrees with this proposition that it is useless to try to protect privacy anymore. I disagree with all three of them.
Several people believe that advancement in technology has eroded the right to privacy. They make a valid point of what privacy has become in recent times, but they have neither demonstrated an understanding of what the right to privacy fully entails, nor established reasons why privacy should not deserve the qualification (and protection) of a right today. Several people who belong to industries that benefit from Big Data (and the “mining”, “grabbing” and trading of same), are quick to discharge privacy rights. This could be for obvious economic reasons, but if people like Kosinski and Musk are able to understand the fundamental nature of the right to privacy, and the rationale for why these rights should be highly valued (save with limited exceptions), then perhaps they will be in the “business” of harnessing their expertise to advance the protection and enforcement of this fundamental right.
This right to privacy ensures that individuals are able to enjoy autonomy over their decisions and activities, and that no tech company or State should intrude into this autonomy without necessary justification. From a supranational perspective, the right to privacy is a fundamental right, whether or not a country recognizes or constitutionalizes it. No one’s privacy should be subjected to arbitrary interference, dishonour or disrepute, without reasonable justification accorded in the law. Anything outside this scope of protection (no matter how prevalent), is an infringement. This is an international standard. Hence, personal data (be it from phones, cards, cameras or IoT devices), should not be subjected to attacks, or traded as merchandise without the informed consent of users. The laws that make up the International Bill of Rights (which almost every country in the world is signatory to — and applies to the tech companies within them), recognize this right. Whilst Big Data presents a new “oil field” fulfilling some States and Silicon Valley interests, the emancipatory potential of digital technologies for safeguarding the enjoyment of privacy rights is jeopardized, especially when innovators and state governments use these same technologies to perpetuate the breach of privacy instead of for protection.
Defining privacy is difficult but the state of being free from observation and unauthorized intrusion should not be. Privacy, however, is not just some “hands-off” right from government intrusion into personal lives; or some regulatory command that tech companies need to comply with. It may be perceived as abstract, but it is about power. Privacy also encompasses the right to make fundamental decisions about one’s intimate relationships without penalisation. For example, with the privacy terms on many apps and software — giving signoff to tech companies to be able to surrender data (or trade same) to governments, this could endanger the lives of minorities in several countries. This is why the tech industry needs to understand that this sphere of private decision-making — an individual’s private life — includes information from personal data and metadata — that people may have no control over, and at the very core cannot be “useless”, “gotten over” or eliminated to a “zero”.
I have never thought about the right to privacy in binary terms, so I do not think that I have “zero” right to privacy. Privacy fluctuates and could swing like a pendulum depending on several factors (personhood, knowledge, habits, jurisdiction, use of certain devices etc.). Not all of these factors are in the control of the individuals. People who are in more technologically advanced societies would find it difficult to exist without relinquishing some of their privacy (e.g. via use of communication devices, bank cards, passports, or even living around public cameras). That being said, privacy is mutable and subjective. It is not a zero-sum game. Our current digital age makes privacy a highly expensive right and perhaps difficult to fully maintain.
But no matter the level of digitization we seem to have attained, I’ll argue that more people still expect strong privacy protection to be built into products and services than otherwise. Therefore, computer scientists need to employ privacy by design and by default. They should develop software to conform to user expectations.
Users can take more informed and cautious approaches when sharing personal information online (and offline), but tools like end-to-end encryption, multi-factor authentication and other privacy controls (though not absolute), can be used to enhance safer practices. Information about these tools should be widely disseminated by tech companies, NGOs and governments. These privacy tools should be made affordable, easy to employ, and perhaps mandated by law. Privacy policies in schools, work, hospitals etc. need to be robust and infringements should be adequately prosecuted. Anonymity of data should be the standard and not relegated to an opt-in choice. For the scores of people where the internet has become a vehicle for victimization and re-victimization (e.g. making image-based abuse possible at the click of a mouse), the right to be forgotten and to have data deleted permanently from servers, should be a legal pursuable remedy.
Transnational tech giants should not be left to just self-regulate but should be highly invested in citizen-driven law reform as a priority concern.
The right to privacy is not dead. The nature of the concept has radically changed. It could be likened to being in a state of critical injury, and instead of telling people that it is “useless”, we need the likes to Musk and Kosinski to propose first-aid kits.