Right to privacy in an interconnected society
We are interconnected through invisible lines which are bouncing around the planet with the speed of light, making it possible for everyone to co-exist and communicate at once. Everything is possible through the “heart” of the system which pumps the blood in the entire “body”, creating a digital spectrum for all its residents. That gigantic, complex and unlimited thing is called the internet.
The internet is the most remarkable invention of the 20th Century. It changed our lives in such a matter that most likely no one was able to foresee in its beginning moments. Today, the notion of the “internet” is such a common word in normal day human interactions that we could never imagine a world where the internet did not exist in a form or another. It sustains our daily needs, connects us with the information in an instant, provides us with unlimited opportunities, helps the development of the society and preserves human relationships. But what is the internet?
The term internet comes from the artificial and partial articulation of two English words: “interconnected” and “network”. Actually, the simplest way to put the definition of the internet into words is as a “global network of computers interconnected”. And to quote some experts at the Internet Society the internet is ”at once a world-wide broadcasting capability, a mechanism for information dissemination, and a medium for collaboration and interaction between individuals and their computers without regard for geographic location”. Complicated as it may seem, let’s look upon the internet as a network of networks offering the possibility to connect with any computer in the world in a matter of seconds.
In law when we talk about something we are required to categorize our subject. More precisely, we have to establish its legal nature. It might seem odd to talk about the internet as an object, but it’s even harder to talk about an object without its owner. In reality, no one really owns the internet; your computer connected to the internet is part of the internet itself. So, once you log on you are part of the network. In reality, some say the internet can actually be seen as a material entity, but without its effects being discovered by its causes. The easiest way to trace its effects is to imagine a worldwide map with unlimited space that contains thousands of connections which constitute an electronic geography. So the internet is more like a social space, than a thing and it could never be the object of anyone’s exclusive right to property. We have access to the internet through internet service providers signing a service contract that contains the amount of money we have to pay monthly.
At first, the internet was created to serve as a network between government research laboratories and participating departments of universities, being build and founded mostly by the US Department of Defense. So, you can say that in its beginning times, the internet was merely a tool used by the government to expand research, and only later people realized the economic and social impact this new discovery might have in sketching the future generations. But maybe no one really visualized the possible dark outcomes in its early stages.
Nowadays, the internet is just about everywhere and can be connected to just about every device that makes my life and yours more comfortable. From online shopping, internet banking and paying bills online, we have chosen a more practical and convenient life, but everything comes at a price.
We’ve arrived at a cross point between internet security and freedom. We don’t mind using apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Google which are collecting, storing and selling data about their users. We even rely our whole existence on the smartphones in our pockets, although they consist in the most efficient tracking devices. We know we can be hacked, but that doesn’t concern us enough to stop using the internet. As a matter of fact, we’ve grown to be dependent on it, addicted to it. Basically, our whole lives are online. So we are partially to blame for being unwitting co-conspirators in our own loss of privacy.
But what is the right to privacy? The right to privacy protects individuals from public scrutiny and is regulated in Article 12 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks”.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights offers a similar approach regarding the substance of the article. It is the European Convention on Human Rights that offers a slightly different image over this inherent human right on its second paragraph
”There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.
Therefore, the right to privacy cannot be an absolute right and it can become the subject of reasonable restrictions regulated by states through their own national laws. Authorities have to be able to hunt down people who are actually suspected of a series of wrongdoing during criminal investigations. Howsoever, states do not enjoy an unlimited power over its citizen’s private lives.
Since the Snowden revelations from 2013, the whole world turned its attention to governments and everyone started to realize the real repercussions of having a constant virtual life. The violation of the right to privacy comes from the foreign and national governments that use perverted technology to observe and analyze our daily activities, such as communications, actions, and transactions and keep records of those activates.
During our daily activities we are using the internet through its search engines and we are producing records of what we searched online: when we purchase something on Amazon we are giving our address and other personal information; when we connect to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and we talk to our friends, share our thoughts and like the things that we enjoy, we are delivering an accurate profile of our personalities; when we use online banking or look for our health insurance policies, it’s actually the same story. And all these comprise perfect records of private lives in a way that had never existed previously in the history of the world.
These are some news headlines published in the media that indicate the scale of involvement in our private existence:
”In some ways, privacy has become impossible on Facebook. Over the last few years, Mark Zuckerberg’s firm has been quietly making it impossible to create a truly private profile.” (FORBES)
” Google acknowledged to state officials that it had violated people’s privacy during its Street View mapping project when it casually scooped up passwords, e-mail and other personal information from unsuspecting computer users.” (NY Times)
”Windows 10 is sending personal information about computers up to Microsoft, even if users have changed all their settings to tell it not to do so.” (THE INDEPENDENT)
Even though the fact that we are constantly being surveilled would have been considered preposterous fifty years ago, over the past decade, we’ve grown to be accustomed to a culture of routine surveillance and a culture of collecting information. We simply expect to be listened to. We are life residents in an addictive society which created the most auspicious environment for everlasting data storage with access to all kinds of information at all times and all places.
Economically speaking, we are a world of consumers. For firms all around the planet, we are study cases that need analyzes and reports to identify our behaviors, what we like and dislike, our mood swings and even drinking habits. They know more about our recent change of preferences than we can even predict ourselves. But how they do that? The truth is most of the information is willingly volunteered by the internet users by using its most popular search engine – Google. We even use this word in almost every conversation we have as a noun, a verb, an adjective and soon maybe as an adverb. But what Google has to do with anything? In reality, this gigantic internet company is making a huge profit from selling information to advertisers. To be more precise, once you searched for something it’s automatically saved in your Web History and those bits of data will be used in order to establish your needs.
So, the more we use their search engines the more they know about us. Search is based on keywords and correlations between words and phrases to create better results even if the request is not clear. Moreover, companies select a range of keywords and concepts they would like to be associated with. It might not seem so scary at first, but think that everything is happing without your explicit permission. Every time we use Google they track your search terms, our IP address establishing our geographical information, what web browser we use, and the date and time.
So to speak, they have the possibility of building thousands of profiles based only on our web history and the information that we provide willingly by signing up on Yahoo, Gmail, Youtube etc. It can all be correlated into a pile of information that could do more harm than good.
So, we could all admit that Google knows everything about you. This famous search engine sees everything and never forgets. Also, any person with internet access can find a lot about anyone only by typing a name and other two pieces of information. Google tries to explain all these unorthodox practices through the need for improving their search services. But it is all worth it?
The scariest thing about the internet is that every time you enter a website it captures at your IP address and many other data through cookies, login information or by tracking what you clicked on during a specific period of time. So the most efficient method to stop having your privacy violated is to never use the internet again. But of course, this strategy is poor and only works if you intend to live in a cave or in the woods.
There was a time when people were extremely scared to give personal information to strangers, but later everything changed into a need to express and post all the mundane activities of our lives. It evolved into this inexplicable need to create an internet persona with a perfect life and perfect friends, perfect school records, and perfect future prospects.
In my opinion, we are talking about a generation of people who are constantly dreaming of becoming popular overnight. However, we are on Facebook whether we like it or not. It’s enough to have other friends on Facebook and your presence will also be felt if you’ve had your picture taken with them. Through Facebook, you give your name, your birthday, info on what you like and dislike, your political views and even food tastes. You answer questions about your education, your job, what you do for fun and your sexual preferences. You even share hundreds of photos and create this internet persona that never disappears. But what can be the outcomes of living in a never forgetting-society?
First of all, individuals may feel impelled to don’t act free as they will grow to have rather distorted personalities, even if the subject of discussion is not conscious at all times. The human behavior will be shaped by expectations, pressure, and opportunities. A citizen who is aware of always being surveilled quickly becomes a more submissive and fearful one. More than that, the possibility of storing information on everyone and using it at any time against anybody creates the perfect weapon and context to eradicate the slightest deviation from the politically preferred behavior. All of these facts led to a social paranoia which determined some writers to compare the fear of being watched everywhere at any time nowadays with the fear of being buried prematurely in the 18th and 19th century.
Authorities from all over the world justified their actions by claiming that you shouldn’t be afraid if you don’t have anything to hide. As Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google said in an interview “If you have something you don’t want people to know about, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”. But this is a glaring misunderstanding of how rights are being exercised in a democratic society and what privacy really is because privacy isn’t about having something to hide, but about having something to protect and that thing is the liberty itself in a free and open society. Saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide it’s the equivalent of saying you don’t need freedom of speech because you have nothing to say.
The growing violation of this right should encourage the world to play a more significant role in protecting it. We have seen over the years how international and national laws failed to protect our freedoms from being manipulated. The problem stays with the courts of justice and the legislators that still refuse to recognize how unfair this mass surveillance has become.
After leaked documents by former NSA consultant, Edward Snowden, revealed how a program designed to find terrorist oversees was massively and secretly expended after 9/11 to spy on people from all around the world, the United Nations reaffirmed the right to privacy and expressed a deeply concern over the ”negative impact that surveillance and/or interception of communications (…) may have on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights”, also, claiming that “unlawful or arbitrary” surveillance may “contradict the tenets of a democratic society”.
This resolution speaks especially about the role of the state in reassuring each individual liberty and respect for private, family life and safe correspondence by ensuring “full compliance with their obligations under international human rights law”. But unfortunately all United Nations General Assembly’s resolutions are non-binding and unless states take their obligations seriously and the international community doesn’t apply pressure, there is a risk that these resolutions remain without a real effect in the world.
Moreover, the European Union took an important step forward in the field of personal data protection regarding the relationship between companies and its employees by regulating severe sanctions and a more protecting legal context for obtaining and sharing the information with caution. So, infringements of the Regulation’s provisions are subject to administrative fines up to € 20.000.000, or, in the case of an undertaking, up to 4% of the total worldwide annual turnover of the preceding financial year. Regulations are legal acts defined by Article 288 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU):
“To exercise the Union’s competences, the institutions shall adopt regulations, directives, decisions, recommendations, and opinions. A regulation shall have general application. It shall be binding in its entirety and directly applicable in all Member States.”
So, the European Union’s regulations have general application, are legally binding and directly applicable in all European Union countries.
In conclusion, our governments may have a rapacious appetite for collecting data, but we must raise our voices and use our representatives in Parliaments to create a more secure legislation regarding the protection of personal information in the context of such an interconnected world, especially for us and for the future generations that may suffer the consequences of today’s choices. As a matter of fact, it’s each member of a society’s choice if they don’t mind their lives being constantly watched or they want a more protected environment for the freedoms and liberties our predecessors fought so hard to get; the liberty that today we take for granted. But what is liberty anyway in a society in which you feel compelled to act in a certain way? It will most likely regress into a notion that has lost its substance.