Concerns about data privacy are changing


On the Internet, stranger danger is no longer a primary worry as consumers become more savvy, but data privacy is rapidly becoming an urgent issue that makes the news with alarming frequency. A global survey conducted by IBM revealed that consumers are becoming increasingly aware of their vulnerabilities online and the power of their data.

  • 75% of citizens are more worried about cybersecurity than five years ago. 
  • 71% of citizens believe that a greater role of government is needed to protect against cybersecurity risks. 
  • 77% of citizens consider the safety of data protection before patronising a company.

(“IBM Cybersecurity and Privacy Research”, IBM, 2018)


Privacy as a right


How we view privacy may be the key to solving crucial issues when it comes to the sharing of our personal information. Privacy is conventionally thought of as a private good. It is the individual right to exert control over the use of personal data. With this right comes the responsibility for making decisions about when, for whom, and for what purpose we share our data. This framework of self-management aligns well with a Wild West conception of the Internet which is market-dominated yet still highly malleable to personal preferences and desires.

But the Internet has come a long way from its early days. Big Data is the new word of the day, and has, along with its intense commercial benefits and convenience for the consumer, raised new and pressing questions about the collective impact of individual action. Personal data, and thus data privacy itself, is a commodity. Long-winded privacy and consent notices, accompanied by tickboxes and “I consent” buttons, act as gatekeepers which consumers are all too happy to pass through in hopes of accessing websites and deceptively free services.


Privacy is of the commons


What we often fail to realize is that privacy is not individual, or at least it no longer is. Karen Yeung, rapporteur for a Council of Europe data and human rights committee, writes that conventionally privacy is thought of as a “zone of protection” around one’s activities which allows for self-actualisation and the achieving of personal goals (2016, 2017). If, however, enough people decide to sell off their privacy (often unknowingly, as Facebook has illuminated) in exchange for various ostensibly free goods and to streamline their online experience, all of society will be impacted. 


The political impact wrought by Big Data in the Cambridge Analytica incident, for instance, demonstrates that ‘consensual’ use of data by Facebook allows for the manipulation of voter behaviour en masse. The actions of those who use such social media platforms thus leads to electoral engineering, which affects the democratic prospects of us all, not only those on Facebook. Jonathan Zittrain, professor at Harvard Law School, aptly names this “digital gerrymandering”. 

Privacy is of the commons, then, not the individual. It should be thought of as not only an individual right, but a public good. Failures of data privacy will inevitably touch all of society in increasingly insidious ways. GDPR, comprehensive data protection legislation enacted by the European Union in 2018 that is the first of its kind, is much-needed policy which recognises the massive negative externalities that can be wrought by improper use of data by corporations. Whether this step is enough to guard against future threats to our (collective) privacy, remains to be seen.

Written by Stephanie Sheir


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