Privacy is becoming an increasingly important issue in modern society. Within the UK, research suggests that almost half of all Internet users believe it is an important issue and this concern is not just confined to UK shores. There has also been a significant amount of activity within the European Union in an attempt to limit the information that the US Government captures and holds about EU citizens.
MaidSafe talk about the importance of privacy a lot. We mention it many times on our website and countless times on Twitter and it may also not have escaped your attention that it is also one of our core values. Privacy is also an integral part of the universal declaration of human rights, article 12 states:
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
Interesting that we are still trying to legislate and protect against something that 48 countries (USA and UK included) voted for and adopted in the late 1940’s.
In my view, privacy is an issue that is all too often misunderstood, this mis understanding is polarised by statements like “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” You could be mistaken for thinking this quote came from a senior member of GCHQ or the NSA. It may surprise you to know that it came from the lips of Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google.
This ‘nothing to hide’ argument, as defined by cryptographer and privacy expert Bruce Schneier, is the “…most common retort against privacy advocates.”. In my view, one of the major problems with this argument, is that it seems to suggest that demanding privacy is identical to protecting secrets or hiding something inherently wrong. That in some way, by not wanting to share everything with the world, that you are involved in some nefarious activity. A fairly bizarre and suspicious assumption anyway that you look at it.
The ‘nothing to hide’ perspective is a particularly narrow view and fails to fully understand the significance of the privacy problem. In many respects it represents an intellectual laziness to avoid exploring the many complexities of people’s relationship with privacy, potentially ignoring such a problem even exists in the first place. Lack of privacy through the unsolicited (or otherwise) recording of personal information enables companies and governments to enforce certain types of behaviour, further enabling strategic manipulation of people’s thoughts and opinions in an effort to control their actions.
Those who believe that only the weak minded would fall for such manipulation should watch Century of the Self by Adam Curtis. It’s available here. The film demonstrates that we are all susceptible to such contrivance and articulates the way in which social engineering and propaganda has been used by both companies and governments to inhibit free thinking and influence human behaviour for decades.
It is through surveillance that organisations can learn about our opinions and beliefs by monitoring our communications and interactions with others. This information enables companies and governments to build a picture of understanding on how people think and attempt to alter that view if their ambitions and desires are not aligned with their own. In a retail setting this may lead to something relatively harmless, such as the purchase of a book or a specific brand of new clothes. However, this knowledge can take on a more sinister role when attempts are made to influence how you will vote in an election, for example.
Another aspect to surveillance is that it is done without transparency and accountability, through vague legislation and privacy statements, or revealed only by whistle blowers (who are then rather perversely branded as traitors) years later. It is this exclusion, where people are prevented from having the knowledge of how the information about them is used, that creates an imbalance, empowering the privileged and creating a sense of helplessness amongst the masses. These individuals are vaguely aware that they are being manipulated, but have no means to question the opaque methods used.
What is required is the means to deliver individuals privacy while ensuring that organisations of all types are transparent. These platforms, should also enable the people to understand what information is being captured and how it is being used. In the case of governments, it should provide a vehicle to question authority and make them accountable to the people that elected them. Unless these steps are taken soon society will continue to sleep walk into an increasingly surveilled and orchestrated future from which it may be difficult to return.
It’s not all bad news however, I believe lifeboats of society are on the horizon. Innovations such as Bitcoin are enabling the masses to start to take back the financial system, providing access to those that currently have none and by removing banks and financial institutions from trade. The SAFE network will provide the same with data and communications by removing humans from the management of our information and giving true anonymity to all users of the Internet. Furthermore, technologies, such as Monetas and Ethereum will facilitate many (not all) aspects of law via open, decentralised and transparent algorithms.
I’ll leave you with a quote from former ebayer Rian Van Der Merwe who wrote:
“Once conversations that should be private are undertaken in a public forum, they become theater – meant for the onlookers more than the participants.”