The death of online privacy


Internet fait aujourd’hui partie intégrante de notre vie et personne ne semble pouvoir s’en passer. Pourtant, il représente une menace grandissante pour notre vie privée, comme en témoignent les révélations récentes d’Edward Snowden. Nos démocraties actuelles se seraient-elles transformées en sociétés orwelliennes ?  


Privacy is a relatively new concept. It didn’t exist in ancient cities, where the concept of “solitude” was limited to clergy. Concerns with information privacy is new too. According to Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist Cerf, “It’s an accident, in some respect, of the urban revolution”. In the United States, the right to privacy has been recognized by the Supreme Court since the landmark 1967 case, Katz v. The United States. There is no express right to privacy under English law but with the Human Rights Act 1998, “everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”

At the beginning “what people found most striking about online life was how anonymous it seemed” but now “it isn’t that the Internet has been penetrated by the surveillance state; it’s that the Internet is a surveillance state”, as Ross Douthat argues in his article Your Smartphone Is Watching You. For example, the Guardian reported in June 2013 that British spy agency GCHQ – Britain’s ‘Government Communications Headquarters – collects and stores large quantities of information of UK citizens not suspected of any wrongdoing (such as email messages, Facebook posts, internet histories and calls) and shares them with the NSA. According to Edward Snowden, the work done by the the British agency is even more troubling than what the NSA engages in: “It’s not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight […] They [GCHQ] are worse than the US.”

Privacy International, a UK charity that promotes privacy throughout the world, claims that this spying surveillance goes against the most basic fundamental human rights to privacy. In a democratic society, a law should be accessible and foreseeable. If citizens ignore the execution of a law, then the law is effectively secret. And secret law is not law.

Why does privacy matter?

To protect our privacy, we need a better understanding of its purpose. In her article “What Privacy Is For“, Georgetown University law professor Julie E. Cohen  criticizes the dominant position which defines privacy as just an dispensable instrument used to advance other values such as liberty. Not only is privacy something we enjoy, but it is also something that is necessary. Indeed, it gives us space to develop an identity that is separate from the surveillance, judgment, and values of our society and culture.

As a consequence, protections go beyond preventing companies from using our information for their financial gain. They safeguard democratic societies by furthering “autonomy, self-fulfillment, socialization, and relative freedom from the abuse of power.”

So what’s the solution? Do we just have to get off the cloud or is there a way to preserve our privacy and continue to benefit from these technologies?

For those of us with an active presence online, Cullen Hoback’s documentary on data privacy Terms and Conditions May Apply is definitely a must-see:

As Cullen Hoback points out in his documentary “Terms and Conditions May Apply”, we’re all guilty of agreeing to these terms in the first place. So, a solution could be to have access to and control over our data, which is what Malte Spitz, a member of the Green Party in Germany, named self-determination at TEDGlobal 2012. The fact that state agencies or companies want to store information on us doesn’t mean we have to let them.

The Internet changed the way we live. But now we need to change the Internet to bring it back to its original promise as a tool of emancipation and free exchange, and not a foe of privacy. The recent NSA scandal might be beneficial as it reminds us that our broad approach to privacy has to be changed. Most laws that govern our treatment of privacy today are based on pre-Internet frameworks. So, they must be rethought. However, we have to keep in mind that the main reason authorities are able to access so much information about us is that we increasingly share our information. As Cullen Hoback argues, “Self-determination and living in the digital age is no contradiction, but you have to fight for your self-determination today. Tell your friends, privacy is the value of the 21st century and it’s not outdated.”



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