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.
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.