What Do You Mean By "Private"?
January 28th is International Data Privacy Day. In the context of digitalization our concept of what is private is changing. In the digital world, privacy is competing with free services and their benefits.
The German chancellor Angela Merkel lives in a turn of the century apartment building with a view of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. It is no secret that she has been living there with her husband Joachim Sauer for years. In 2006, surveillance cameras at the museum had accidentally filmed the living room of Merkel and Sauer. Naturally, this intrusion caused a huge scandal, because everything that happens behind the doors of their apartment in Berlin is private.
Every person has the right to privacy. It is a human right, a civil right for everyone. No one should be forced to explain why he or she wants to enjoy privacy, to be unobserved. A citizen can be in the spotlight as a successful physicist or politician by day and still value privacy at home by evening. That is personal decision. But suddenly our concept of privacy and our claims on it are changing.
On the Internet users constantly give away details of their private lives: pictures of breakfast in bed, the burnt Sunday roast or after sex selfies. What was private once, now ends up online quickly. And average citizens, whether in the U.S. or Germany, spend more and more time online. They surf, shop and chat, create profiles on social networks and share their thoughts and experiences terabyte after terabyte. Everyone of us uses and produces data permanently. That erodes privacy and allows others to peak into our living room.
Only three pins on a city map are enough to assign a movement profile to an individual. Buzzwords in chats attract the attention of cybercriminals and authorities alike. Apps have access to our contacts, our location, our search profile. Many consumers know that their data could be misused: according to a survey of the Federation of German Consumer Association, 84% of users are saying that social networks collect too much data. 51 percent would pay for better data protection. However, they continue to use Facebook, Google & Co. So how can this "privacy paradoxon" be explained? Despite their dislike of becoming more and more transparent, users continue to use services collecting and analyzing their data, because they get a valuable service in return. For this service, they are paying with their data.
Convenience beats data protection: once online, every citizen becomes a user and takes advantage of infrastructure built by companies. Users defend their civil right of privacy and want to keep their data out oft he hands of authorities, but seem to be less cautious and alert to share their data with businesses. Salil Shetty, Secretary General of the human rights organization Amnesty International, explained at the World Economic Forum 2016 in Davos, that it is a difference, if I give my data voluntary, or if the state is just taking them.
But what does it mean if we give away data voluntarily? How does our concept of privacy change? The privacy paradoxon shows, how quickly the human right of privacy is ending up on a scale pan opposite benefits and free services. "We have nothing to hide," users like to say – as if private always means that you are trying to hide something. Angela Merkel herself has repeatedly stressed that it is important to protect data, but it should not reach a point where privacy hinders progress. And at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said that the central question for our digital future was how we want to face this future: with fear or with hope.
But being private does not not necessarily mean that you want to hide something. A secret is not evil per se. The desire to protect one’s privacy is not a sign of fear. Privacy is in danger of loosing its self-evidence that it should have as a human right. Suddenly, we see the need to justify it. In the documentary "Democracy", on the negotiations about the EU Data Protection Regulation, the Polish human rights activist Katarzyna Szymielewicz said that it would be wrong to even feel obliged to justify privacy, a general right, that we should not explain why it would be so bad to sacrifice.
Nevertheless, we are inclined to do it. Because we want to show the consequences if we are careless about our privacy – and because we may be afraid that our attitude as a user may have an impact on our attitude as a citizen. That people like Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Sauer become extinct, who close their door and like to be private.
Online we often leave our doors wide open. Because it becomes ever harder not to, the European Union is putting regulation in place to protect data. After the failure of the Safe Harbor Agreement in October 2015, the EU prohibits US companies to transfer data of European citizens to the United States. The deadline for American companies to stop this practice of transferring data is due end of January. As of February, the EU wants to sue companies that are not in compliance. The struggle about what is private has only just begun.
Mirjam Stegherr (MMF '15) is Head of Communications for the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (Verbrauchzentrale Bundesverband).
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.