Saturday, December 31, 2005

Ramblings about personal privacy

I wish to offer a definitions of one aspect of privacy in order that I can try and explain some ideas on the nature of personal privacy without tying myself in knots. I'd also appreciate some comments about this, should anybody wish to offer their ideas on personal privacy.

The definition I'll put forward may as well be called 'It's none of your business' Privacy. I hold that this is the basic definition of privacy that most people carry with them on a day to day basis. To give an example, the reason why we don't condone government tracking of individuals on CCTV is not that we don't recognise the potential benefits of this monitoring, but that the government has no business tracking individuals without just cause. It's a basic level of privacy which is pretty easy to grasp; as far as we can be said to have 'freedom to' this is it - it is private if it doesn't effect anyone else, and because it doesn't effect any else, it shouldn't be available to anyone else.

The interesting thing about this type of privacy is that we are quite willing to have it broken. We do accept that banks have a right to monitor our spending for our mutual financial security, and we also accept that should it become necessary, such information should be turned over to the relevant authorities - obvious example being the police should our finances come into question.

The real issue of privacy therefore is when this definition is surpassed. Such examples follow on from the previous definition in that it indicates a breach of the trust we place in organisations to hold our data, or pay too much attention to our everyday lives. To continue from the analogy above, it's fine for our bank to monitor our spending habits, but it becomes a breach of privacy should the bank pass this information on to a market research company - it's none of their business to have access to that data.

This seems to be becoming a more and more important definition as our personal information become more readily available from many different sources. Individually, we are quite happy for different organisations to have access to some parts of our data, but collating this information without just cause is a breach of privacy. It's not that we don't want the information out there, but that it shouldn't be misused.

To give a contemporary example, take ID cards. It's not that the information contained in the card will be 'new' information - it is only a collection of information held elsewhere after all. The real issue is that there is no reason for this information to be collated in one place, no need for one organisation to have easy access to all the data. It's not their business to have this information, so it shouldn't be accepted.

Anyway, there's lots to say about privacy and I've only touched the surface because my mind keeps going off an tangents and it's difficult to keep things coherent. I'm particularly interested in where consent comes into the whole thing and whether the fact that we tacitly consent to being filmed on CCTV or logged at ATMs is really enough to justify some of the uses of the information that then occur. I really dislike the 'if you've got nothing to hide' argument, which prompts me to think that there is something inherently wrong with our being tracked, although as it doesn't really affect our privacy unless it's abused, is it really an issue?

But then do we really know what happens to most of the data collected about us? Maybe the real issue is clarity, and privacy would be a much easier issue to discuss if we actually knew what was and what wasn't known about our private lives.

Any takers?


Anonymous said...

I know it's nicking from the "How to argue against ID cards" pamphlet, but the best argument against the "Nothing to hide" point is:

"So you've got nothing to hide? Then you won't mind us fitting CCTV cameras in your house then. Because a lot of crime takes place at home, and this would help us stop it..."

PaulJ said...

Well yes, that's rather the point I'm making. It's perfectly true that if we monitored everybody with CCTV at home we would cut crime dramatically, but that doesn't mean that we should do it because it's patently absurd - it goes beyond the 'none of you business' line and it's at that point that it becomes more an unacceptable breach of privacy than a tool to combat crime.

The NO2ID pamphlet is indeed very good at answering those questions in a very clever way. It's not that you don't have an answer to hand to most of the questions, just that you're looking for the best put down to what is often a ridiculous proposal...