Everyone should have something to hide
2 February 2024
We all have something we want to keep to ourselves, and we all need to be more vigilant of who holds information and what they’re doing with it, says Gehan Gunasekara
International Data Privacy Day is marked annually by platitudes across the world: the importance of privacy is underscored, while its relentless retreat in the face of fast-evolving technologies, such as artificial intelligence and biometric recognition tools, is bemoaned.
This year’s theme, ‘Take Control of Your Data’, appears optimistic in light of the relentless increase in the quantity of personal information generated by our everyday activities, including Big Data.
The collection of our data has facilitated the emergence and resources of generative AI tools such as ChatGPT. These tools can be used for good, but they’ve also aided in the creation of deep fakes, misinformation, and the ability to reidentify individuals from large sets of anonymised data.
We all have mixed feelings about privacy. On one hand, people want to keep their details private. On the other, we often have an innate desire to pry into the affairs of others, be they celebrities, politicians, classmates or colleagues. Personal information is not just information; it’s about people and their lives.
Digital platforms, including Google, TikTok and Meta, as well as the businesses that are their core clientele, have more pragmatic reasons for wanting to harvest as much personal data as possible. They profit handsomely from it through behavioural advertising and the surveillance capitalism techniques of manipulating behaviour: in other words, they use our own information against us, one example being price discrimination.
Governments also have many reasons for wanting our information. These can be benevolent, for example, to better tailor service provision to need, or they can be about advancing more sinister goals such as seeking to influence citizens’ opinions and actions. Facial recognition cameras can deter criminal behaviour, but they can also impact turnout for legitimate (often significant and change-making) protests in public places.
Facial recognition is just one form of biometric identification; people can also be biometrically identified and profiled based on their gait, voice or other behavioural characteristics. Should such technologies be used just because they exist?
Then there’s the famous ‘I have nothing to hide’ argument often used to argue that only those doing something illegal have a reason to claim privacy. International privacy scholar (George Washington University) Daniel Solove has amusingly listed a few responses to this argument on his blog, including retorts such as ‘So you don’t have curtains?’ ‘You show me yours and I’ll show you mine’ and ‘If you have nothing to hide, you don’t have a life’.
The essence of these sentiments is that everyone has something they wish to keep to themselves, even if it’s as trivial as what they eat or the company they keep. More seriously, Solove has pointed to the social benefits of privacy and private space as a crucial aspect of liberal democracies.
So, what can we do if we are to do more than pay lip service to this year’s International Data Privacy Day? First, we can educate ourselves on our rights. New Zealand has had a Privacy Act since 1993 – updated in 2020 and recently re-approved by the European Union as adequate for the export of its citizens’ personal data to New Zealand.
The Privacy Commissioner’s website has information about the privacy principles in the Act. Check to see if the businesses we deal with are following these principles. Complain if they are not.
Second, demand justification from technology providers. For example, facial recognition is just one form of biometric identification; people can also be biometrically identified and profiled based on their gait (how they walk), voice or other behavioural characteristics. Should such technologies be used just because they exist? What are the risks, and do they outweigh the benefits?
Finally, put pressure on our politicians to keep our privacy laws current, especially concerning children, an area in which Aotearoa New Zealand lags. Let’s keep privacy alive.
Gehan Gunasekara is an associate professor in commercial law at the Business School and is convenor of the Surveillance Working Group of the Privacy Foundation.
This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.
This article was first published on Newsroom, Everyone should have something to hide, 2 February 2024
Margo White I Research communications editor
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