Does privacy stand in the way of safety? In the wake of recent terror attacks, large tech firms like Facebook have been criticised for facilitating communication, radicalisation, and propaganda activities of terror groups online. In response, these companies have been keen to point out the measures they employ to make their services hostile environments for terrorists (such as artificial intelligence to identify objectionable content). Yet some of these measures have raised privacy concerns.
There’s a growing awareness about the value of personal information, with The Economist recently arguing that the world’s most valuable commodity is now no longer oil, but data. People seem happy to give up some of their privacy in order to pay for online services such as email, social media, and internet search tools. So, by that logic, people should be more than willing to sacrifice some privacy in order to help maintain security. Is it really so simple?
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Andrej, who believes that safety should always trump privacy concerns. But are there some assumptions baked into his comment? Are privacy and public security really in conflict with one another? And, if so, which is more important?
To get a response, we spoke to Dr. Mariarosaria Taddeo, Researcher Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. Did she think there was a conflict between privacy and security?
[…] No, they are not in conflict. It is possible to guarantee security in such a way that privacy is not hindered or encroached on too much. Having said that, privacy is a fundamental right but it is not an absolute right. So, privacy is something that cannot be denied to people because people have the right to privacy as human beings, but it’s not a right that comes in a binary form. It comes in degrees. So, one of the ways in which we can overcome this tension between privacy and security is to understand how much privacy we want to forgo or give away for the sake of security.
Just to give you a practical example: I might be happy to give my date of birth when I check in my account over the phone to the operator because this facilitates the security practices on my bank account, so people who don’t know my bank account cannot access that information. I’m giving away a little bit of my privacy there for the sake of security, and this is fine. I’m not too happy for social media to collect data about my browsing habits or the websites I visit for surveillance purposes, however. What I’m trying to say is that privacy comes in degrees, and the friction between privacy and security is solved properly only when we control how much privacy we are giving away for the sake of security…
For another perspective, we put the same question to Dr. John Guelke, a research fellow at the University of Warwick whose research focuses on the ethics of surveillance. What would he say?
[…] I guess my main answer would be that a lot of public security policy is insufficiently respectful of privacy, and there are other issues going on there such as insufficient oversight of the way in which the policy has been carried out. Also, the kind of ways that privacy is being compromised [by governments] are ways that are quite common on the part of private businesses and are often treated as acceptable and not a cause for concern elsewhere. Now, there are good reasons for people to be more concerned about governments carrying out this kind of activity than private businesses, but the position is quite nuanced and often it’s presented as a much more stark position than I think is the case, as if privacy is being destroyed or given up wholesale when it’s rather an accumulation of small compromises across the board.
We also had a comment from Rui, who argues (though perhaps with tongue-in-cheek?) that if we have nothing to hide then we should not be worried about giving up our privacy. What would Dr. Mariarosaria Taddeo say?
This is a really bad argument, and a very dangerous one. It’s not about having something to hide. That’s a misconception. Privacy is a human right, and is a right that has been there to protect our dignity, not to protect our secrets. Imagine having someone looking at you while you are taking a shower, or when you’re flossing? It’s not about secrets, it’s your private moment and it’s private because, for our culture, doing that in public would be a way of breaching our dignity. So, privacy is not there to protect secrets. It’s there to protect dignity as human beings.
There is another argument, which is that while we don’t have anything to hide today, we might want to hide it tomorrow. Jews in Germany didn’t have to hide being Jewish before the Nazi party was in power, but then it became very convenient to hide that information. So, what I’m saying is the ‘nothing to hide’ argument doesn’t work conceptually, because it is not about hiding stuff, and it doesn’t work pragmatically because there might be situations in which there is no problem to reveal something today but it might become problematic in 5 or 20 years.
Finally, how would Dr. John Guelke respond to Rui’s comment?
Well, I would say people often don’t realise just how big a stake they have in privacy. Usually we’re more attuned to the dangers of losing privacy with regards to the people in our personal lives knowing things; even though we don’t think there’s anything wrong with activity or behaviour, we wouldn’t necessarily want to share these facts with every person in our life, every family member, every friend. Privacy is important partly because it enables us to have different kinds of relationships with different people. So, I could have a different level of intimacy with my neighbour, who might be much more conservative with me, than I would with my best friend, who I’ve seen at difficult moments in their life and I might be more forgiving of mistakes – and that’s before we even get into the question of people having very different lives and lifestyles and so on…
Would you give up your privacy to improve your safety? Are privacy and public security in conflict with one another? And, if so, which is more important? If we have nothing to hide, why should we be worried about giving up our privacy? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!