Monday 30 September 2019

What Place for Privacy in a Digital World?

C. S. Lewis, serene at his desk...

Posted by Keith Tidman

When Albert Camus offered this soothing advice in the first half of the twentieth century, ‘Opt for privacy. . . . You need to breathe. And you need to be’, life was still uncomplicated by digital technology. Since then, we have become just so many cogwheels in the global machinery that makes up the ‘Internet of things’ — the multifarious devices that simultaneously empower us and make us vulnerable.

We are alternately thrilled with the power that these devices shower on us — providing an interactive window onto the world, and giving us voice — even as we are dismayed to see our personal information scooped up, stowed, scrutinised for nuggets, reassembled, duplicated, and given up to others. That we may not see this too, that our lives are shared without our being aware, without our freely choosing, and without our being able to prevent their commodification and monetisation only makes it much worse.

Can a human right to privacy, assumed by Camus, still fit within this digitised reality?

Louis Brandeis, a former justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, defined the ‘right to be left alone’ as the ‘most comprehensive of rights, and the right most prized by civilised people’. But that was proffered some ninety years ago. If individuals and societies still value that principle, then today they are challenged to figure out how to balance the intrusively ubiquitous connectivity of digital technology, and the sanctity of personal information implicit in the ‘right to be left alone’. That is, the fundamental human right articulated by the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home, or correspondence’.
It’s safe to assume that we’re not about to scrap our digital devices and nostalgically return to analog lives. To the contrary, inevitable shifts in society will require more dependence on increasingly sophisticated digital technology for a widening range of purposes. Participation in civic life will call for more and different devices, and greater vacuuming and moving around of information. Whether the latter will translate into further loss of the human right to privacy, as is risked, or that society manages change in order to preserve or even recover lost personal privacy, the draft of that narrative is still being written.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that intervention — by policymakers, regulators, technologists, sociologists, cultural anthropologists, and ethicists, among others — may coalesce to avoid the erosion of personal privacy taking a straight upward trajectory. Urgency, and a commitment to avoid and even reverse further erosion, will be key.

Some contemporary philosophers have argued that claims to a human right to privacy are redundant, for various reasons. An example is when privacy is presumed embedded in other human rights, such as personal property — distinguished from property held in common — and protection of our personal being. But this seems dubious; in fact, one might flip the argument on its head — that is, our founding other rights on the right of privacy, the latter being more fundamentally based in human dignity and moral values. It’s a more nuanced, ethics-based position that makes the one-dimensional assertion that ‘If you don’t have anything to hide, you have nothing to fear’ all the more specious.

Furthermore, without a right to privacy being carved out in concrete terms, such as codified in law and constitutions, it may simply get ignored, rendering it non-defendable. For all that, we value privacy, and with it to prevent other people’s intrusion and meddling in our lives. We cling to the notion of what has been dubbed the ‘inviolate personality’ — the quintessence of being a person. In endorsing this belief in individual interests, one is subscribing to Noam Chomsky’s caution that ‘It’s dangerous when people are willing to give up their privacy’. To Chomsky’s point, the informed, ‘willing’ acceptance of social media’s mining and monetising of our personal data provides a contrast.

One parallel factor is the push-pull between what may become normalised governmental access to our personal information and individuals’ assertion of confidentiality and the ‘reasonable expectation’ of privacy. The style of government — from liberal democracies to authoritarianism — matters to government access to personal information: whether for benign use or malign abuse. ‘In good conscience’ is a reasonable guiding principle in establishing the what, when, and how of government access. And in turn, it matters to a fundamental human right to privacy. Meantime, governments may see a need for tools to combat crime and terrorism, allowing surveillance and intelligence gathering through wiretaps and Internet monitoring.

Two and a half centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin foreshadowed this tension between the liberty implied in personal privacy and the safety implied in government’s interest in self-protection. He cautioned: 
‘Those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety’. 
Yet, however amorphous these contrary claims to rights might be, as a practical matter society has to resolve the risk-benefit equation and choose how to play its hand. What we conclude is the best solution will likely keep shifting, based on norms and emerging technology.

And the notions of a human right to privacy differ as markedly among cultures as they do among individuals. The definition of privacy and its value may differ both among and within cultures. It would perhaps prove unsurprising if a culture situated in Asia, a culture situated in Africa, a culture situated in Europe, and a culture situated in South or Central America were to frame personal privacy rights differently. But only insofar as both the burgeoning of digital technology and the nature of government influence the privacy-rights landscape.

The reflex may be to anticipate that privacy and human rights will take a straight, if thorny, path. The relentless and quickening emergence of digital technologies drives this impulse. The British writer and philosopher C. S. Lewis provides social context for this impulse, saying:
‘We live … in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private.’
Despite the invasion of people’s privacy, by white-hatted parties (with benign intent) and black-hatted parties (with malign intent), I believe our record thus far represents only an embryonic, inelegant attempt to explore — with perfunctory legal, regulatory, or principled restraint — the rich utility of digital technology.

Nonetheless, if we are to steer clear of the potentially unbridled erosion of privacy rights — to uphold the human right to privacy, however measured — then it will require repeatedly revisiting what one might call the ‘digital social contract’ the community adopts: and resolving the contradiction behind being both ‘citizen-creators’ and ‘citizen-users’ of digital technologies.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. People have a powerful need for the illusion of privacy, and I doubt myself that this will ever change. I think it comes down to this, in every area of life: how much can we trust each other with information? So within my clan, for instance, privacy is not an issue, because I trust my clan. About privacy as it is today, here are two incidents I experienced, which show where we are at:

1. Earlier this year, I personally discussed research positions with a seminary faculty member, under the shade of a great tree. Then I sent him a note via Facebook Messenger to thank him. That same day, I received an e-mail from Oxford University in my private Inbox: 'Academic researcher? Please get in touch!' Not that Oxford would ever have me as a researcher.

2. But that example is simple. A few months ago, I had my diesel three-wheeler spray painted. I put up a post on a weblog, showing its new coat. The same day, I was bombarded with ads on Facebook from the Tinnitus Support Group. This second example shows something more sophistcated: there is a connection between tinnitus and diesel three-wheelers which algorithms find easy to spot.

What I believe is the real danger lies not in your post. Economics, today, is sometimes called the science of scarcity. This requires complete obedience to the need for a better fit. Everything, writes the economist Niko Paech, is now connected with everything through streams of people, goods, and data.

Now what is required to make that work is a vast amount of personal data, and massive computing power. The trouble is that the algorithms, even learning algorithms, include only (I am being circular) what the algorithms include. They leave out the rest. Say, the environment. Therefore every time we check in to Pi, or communicate on our smartphone, we are feeding this system, and the system is taking us down a road of no return.

John Triplett said...

Keith, thanks much for initiating this discussion of "privacy in the digital/AI world".
I fear that humankind gave up most hope of privacy maintenance of any sort when birth certificates were first "required" by whomever at the time of our birth. Perhaps it was even earlier when humans felt the need to name or identify ourselves one from the other. Following of course, out of necessity to indicate ownership of "stuff" from wives/husbands, children, abodes, lands, etc to clan membership/citizenship/government/social interaction and now to ideas, we should have no expectation of privacy whatsoever beyond what we think in our own mind and do not speak or write of it to or in the presence of any other human. Even our mannerisms/actions/facial expressions in front of others or on camera can reveal our private thoughts.
Talk of AI/algorithmic monitoring of our every private action is real and seems acceptable to many humans. I agree that our utmost vigilance is required but I fear that we may have passed the point of no return.
Once Moravec's paradox is accomplished by machines humankind will be enslaved and superfulus.
I can forward other items by other means to follow on.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. You might just have solved a theological problem. Why was it a sin for David to number the people? 'Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel' (1 Chronicles 21:1).

Keith said...

Thank you, Thomas, for sharing two of your personal experiences with the intrusive side of our ever-digital lives.

Your first example, about your being tagged as a researcher and thus being competitively sought after by another university, sounds somewhat par. That is, to me it's not unsurprising. However, your second example, about an algorithm linking your online posting of a spray-painted diesel three-wheeler and tinnitus, made me go wow. The developer of that algorithm was certainly inventive, single-minded, and determined.

As the machine learning of artificial intelligence becomes exponentially smarter, which it will — including the leverage acquired via the advent of stunningly more-capable quantum computers — the imbalance between hunter and prey will prevail, and maybe even widen.

Although, as you say, you trust your 'clan' — which does sound safe and understandable, depending on how one happens to define one's clan — most of life for the larger online community rarely merits the 'trust' you refer to. Worsened by something you point out, though in more than just an economics sense: 'Everything ... is now connected with everything'.

docmartincohen said...

Myself, I think 'the right to privacy' is a little bit overstated, even now. For example, I think income tax returns should be publicly displayed, and all kinds of government information. The Freedom of Information approach in the US, is a great advance for the rights of the community, even as it encroaches on the privacy of state actors. That said, as individuals, we now face extraordinary intrusions - facial scanning, algorithmic analysis of our activities online, and (let's not forget, they started a lot of it!) commercial databases analysing us as consumers.

Anyway, to the analyser in chief: Mark Zuckerberg, In an email exchange leaked to the magazine Silicon Alley Insider, a youthful Zuckerberg once explained to a friend that his control of Facebook gave him access to any information he wanted on any of his fellow Harvard students:

ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard

ZUCK: just ask

ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns

FRIEND: what!? how’d you manage that one?

ZUCK: people just submitted it

ZUCK: i don’t know why

ZUCK: they “trust me”

ZUCK: dumb ****s

Keith said...

Thank you, John, for your several observations. Truth be told, I’m a little uneasy with the cautionary tale that ‘we should have no expectation of privacy whatsoever’. Certainly we’re on a slope toward diminished privacy. And well along that path, as we all know. But perhaps, on the other hand, the trajectory isn’t doomed to end with privacy absolutely zeroed out. The reason for my concern is this: I suspect there’s a lamentably direct correlation between decreasing privacy and decreasing personal autonomy. Those forces that see a gain in manipulating us — governments, corporations, special interests, many others — will be happy to recognise and fill the power vacuum in individual sovereignty that’s left. For all practical purposes, fewer and fewer decisions and choices in life may remain freely ours. I wonder if we’d care; I think so. There’s still hope not to zero out privacy.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

'I wonder if we’d care; I think so.' I think we'd care a lot. The thing is, we'd care if we knew.

Re transparency, I agree with Martin as I understand him. We need far more of it, to bring all things into better balance. At the same time, that needs to be meshed with privacy. And that means ... defining privacy.

Keith said...

‘The Freedom of Information approach in the US, is a great advance for the rights of the community’.

I agree, Martin, in the program’s broadest strokes. However, in its particulars, the power of FOIA (the U.S. Freedom of Information Act) to bring government information to light has had its limits. It’s not a panacea, despite the government’s opening online words breezily saying the Act’s ‘basic function … is to ensure informed citizens, vital to the functioning of a democratic society’.

To my point, the Act expressly lays out nine exemptions, none of which are trivial.

The nine, in brief, are information that’s classified to protect national security; information on the internal personnel practices of an agency; information prohibited from disclosure by another federal law; trade secrets; privileged communications within or between agencies; information that would invade another individual’s personal privacy; information compiled for law enforcement purposes; information that concerns the supervision of financial institutions; and (oddly) geologic information on wells.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see all sorts of reasons, buried in the wording of these exemptions, to block or at least slow-walk the release of information requested through FOIA requests. Now, of course, it should be acknowledged that the rationale to put up roadblocks may on occasions be perfectly reasonable. Some threats are real. On other occasions, the rationale may less nobly be to circle the wagons.

But, for a moment, let’s widen the lens. UNESCO said, in 2016, that by that year 112 countries had enacted freedom-of-information laws, ostensibly to release government information to the general public. I wonder how many do. And I wonder, country by country, what the balance is between government access to public information and public access to government information. Just curious.

Keith said...

I agree, Thomas, that defining ‘transparency’ and ‘privacy’ — what they are, how much there should be, why they matter, how they should be balanced, and the like — is important. How one might herd the many definitions of transparency and privacy into guidance toward concrete policies around the world — where different people see different stakes, risks, and self-interests — to date has defied doing. With so many people on their heels about transparency and privacy, definitions thus far have proven elusive. I wonder, therefore, if the world, in order to make headway, will have to live with multiple definitions — and figure out how, to borrow your word, to ‘mesh’ them.

docmartincohen said...

I've put in a few Preedom of Information requests and only once had any real information back. Normally the requests are brushed aside - how 'free' is that? It seems the acts create a route though for people like investigative journalists or organisational campaigners to obtain information that really ought to be just published anyway.But as Thomas says, there's a genuine tension - a dilemma? - between the demands of transparency and the right of a personal, private space.

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