Today, Saturday February 23rd 2013, is International Privacy Day. To mark it, I’ve done a re-boot of an old blog post: ‘Privacy is not the enemy’. The original post (which you can find here) came back in December 2011, after I attended an ‘open data’ event organised by the Oxford Internet Institute – but it’s worth repeating, because those of us who advocate for privacy often find themselves having to defend themselves against attack, as though ‘privacy’ was somehow the enemy of so much that is good.
Privacy is not the enemy
Privacy advocates are often used to being in a defensive position – trying to ‘shout out’ about privacy to a room full of avid data-sharers or supporters of business innovation above all things. There is a lot of antagonism. Those we speak to can sometimes feel that they are being ‘threatened’ – some of the recent debate over the proposed reform of the Data Protection regime has had very much that character. And yet I believe that many of those threatened are missing the point about privacy. Just as Guido Fawkes is wrong to characterise privacy just as a ‘euphemism for censorship’ (as I’ve written about before) and Paul McMullan was wrong to suggest to the Leveson Inquiry that ‘privacy is for paedos’, the idea that privacy is the ‘enemy’ of so many things is fundamentally misconceived. To a great extent the opposite is true.
Privacy is not the enemy of free expression – indeed, as Jo Glanville of Index on Censorship has argued, privacy is essential for free expression. Without the protection provided by privacy, people are shackled by the risk that their enemies, those that would censor them, arrest them or worse, can uncover their identities, find them and do their worst. Without privacy, there is no free expression. The two go hand-in-hand, particularly where those without ‘power’ are concerned – and just as privacy shouldn’t just be something available for the rich and powerful, free speech shouldn’t only be available to those robust enough to cope with exposure.
Privacy is not the enemy of ‘publicness’ – in a similar way, to be truly ‘public’, people need to be able to protect what is private. They need to be able to have at least some control over what they share, what they put into the public. If they have no privacy, no control at all, how can they know what to share?
Privacy is not the enemy of law enforcement – privacy is sometimes suggested to be a tool for criminals, something behind which they can hide behind. The old argument that ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’ has been exposed as a fallacy many times – perhaps most notably by Daniel Solove (e.g. here), but there is another side to the argument. Criminals will use whatever tools you present them with. If you provide an internet with privacy and anonymity they’ll use that privacy and anonymity – but if you provide an internet without privacy, they’ll exploit that lack of privacy. Many scams related to identity theft are based around taking advantage of that lack of privacy. It would perhaps be stretching a point to suggest that privacy is a friend to law enforcement – but it is as much of an enemy to criminals as it is to law enforcement agencies. Properly implemented privacy can protect us from crime.
Privacy is not the enemy of security – in a similar way, terrorists and those behind what’s loosely described as cyberwarfare will exploit whatever environment they are provided with. If Western Law enforcement agencies demand that social networks install ‘back doors’ to allow them to pursue terrorists and criminals, you can be sure that those back doors will be used by their enemies – terrorists, criminals, agents of enemy states and so forth. Privacy International’s ‘Big Brother Inc’ campaign has revealed the extent to which surveillance products developed in the West are being sold to despotic and oppressive regimes – in an industry worth an estimated $5 billion a year. It’s systematic, and understandable. Surveillance is a double-edged sword – and privacy is a shield which faces many ways (to stretch a metaphor beyond its limits!). Proper privacy protection works against the ‘bad guys’ as well as the ‘good’. It’s a supporter of security, not an enemy.
Privacy is not the enemy of business – though it is the enemy of certain particular business models, just as ‘health’ is the enemy of the tobacco industry. Ultimately, privacy is a supporter of business, because better privacy increases trust, and trust helps business. Governments need to start to be clear that this is the case – and that by undermining privacy (for example though the oppressive and disproportionate attempts to control copyright infringement) they undermine trust, both in businesses and in themselves as governments. Privacy is certainly a challenge to business – but that’s merely reflective of the challenges that all businesses face (and should face) in developing businesses that people want to use and are willing to pay money for.
Privacy is not the enemy of open data – indeed, precisely the opposite. First of all, privacy should make it clear which data should be shared, and how. ‘Public’ data doesn’t infringe privacy – from bus timetables to meteorological records, from public accounts to parliamentary voting records. Personal data is just that – personal – and sharing it should happen with real consent. When is that consent likely to be given? When people trust that their data will be used appropriately. When will they trust? When privacy is generally in place. Better privacy means better data sharing.
All this is without addressing the question of whether (and to what extent) privacy is a fundamental right. I won’t get into that here – it’s a philosophical question and one of great interest to me, but the arguments in favour of privacy are highly practical as well as philosophical. Privacy shouldn’t be the enemy – it should be seen as something positive, something that can assist and support. Privacy builds trust, and trust helps everyone.
Over the time since I first wrote this post, privacy has if anything become bigger news that it was. If Facebook launches a new product (e.g. Graph Search, about which I wrote here and here), it makes privacy a centre-piece of the launch, regardless of the true privacy impact of the product. Apple has now put privacy settings into iOS for its iPhone and iPad. Privacy is big news! Let’s mark International Privacy Day by reminding ourselves that privacy is not an enemy – the opposite….