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2012: Losing The Right on Privacy

"It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information"
Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900)


Human rights are defined by Sepúlveda et al. (2004) as “the inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being”. Among these clearly defined rights there is a special category reserved for civil rights. Civil rights are designed to protect any persons’ freedom from entities such as governments, private organizations or other institutions. Among these civil rights are freedom from discrimination, freedom of thought and expression, freedom of religion, press and movement and a right to your privacy.

In a world where these rights are constantly and evidently violated, we seem to be good at protesting the painfully obvious infringements of those rights. We try and stand up for our friend who did not get a job because he happened to be black, we do protest a journalist being killed somewhere on the other side of the planet or we think people should be able to voice their opinion by voting, protesting or writing open letters.

However in the midst of those blatantly apparent breaches of human rights, we often forget those violations that are not so straightforward; the ones that creep in slowly, without attracting a lot of attention to itself.

This is what is happening right now. Slowly, but surely we are all willingly giving up pieces of our personal freedom. Every box you check, every policy you do not read, every time you click ‘agree’, you waive a little bit (or sometimes a lot) of one of your most basic rights as a human being. Your right to privacy. Your right to have a place in the world that you can call your own, without anybody looking over your shoulder. Your right to do things your way, without being judged or even harassed for it.

There are many arguments that privacy does not belong in that list of basic rights. One that is most commonly brought up in debates: if you do not do anything wrong why would you want to hide your actions from the world. This is off course true. From a legal standpoint this makes complete sense. But the term ‘wrong’ can be understood in many ways. Some people think being gay is wrong, or that being stupid is wrong or even if they have a different ideology (let us say democrats versus republicans in the United States) that the other party is wrong. From a sociological standpoint this argument can also be countered. For example, people do not want everybody to see them having sex, or going to the bathroom or even standing in the shower. So why would it be ok for these activities to be out in the public domain. Even from a legal perspective, there are laws in the world that are not what you might call fair. For example, there is a law in Indonesia that punishes masturbation with decapitation. These are all very good reasons to keep your private life private, even if you live in the most free and open-minded country in the world. One can never know how we evolve as a society and it is therefore important that we keep our lives to ourselves.

Once you look past the simple argumentations against preserving personal space, one can find many reasons why our privacy should be maintained. This paper will explain how the evolution of privacy came to be, why we willingly give up these rights, who can take advantage of this and what one can do to keep your life to yourself.


Before we go any further in this paper, it is important that we define our constructs clearly. Since this topic is very complex and often terms and concept are used interchangeably, it is essential that the context of this disquisition is clear.


Privacy is the personal space of any individual. Anything; physical, emotional or cognitive, can be (but does not necessarily have to) only entrusted to that person or disclosed to people who that person chooses.The infringement of privacy consists of a person, government or organization finding out information that is not meant by a person to be public. Breaching this right is done so without the consent of the person involved. An example would be: secretly garnishing information by hacking that person’s computer.

If private information is to become public, it can be done in several ways:

1) Unwillingly and unknowingly: An unauthorized extraction of information without that person’s knowledge. Example: stealing somebody’s mail

2) Unwillingly and knowingly: An illicit extraction of information with that person’s knowledge. Example: Forced identification by law

3) Willingly: A person willingly gives up some information.

One must note that there is a significant grey area. There are companies and governments that slowly gather information without the explicit knowledge of the person. By discombobulating the gathering of information and secretively collecting data they slowly build a quite precise image of that person.

Information Collection

This is called information collection. The more information on an individual is publicly available the less privacy that person has. This is inversely proportional, so the less data is available about a person the more privacy he or she has.


When an entity has information about a person, it is easier to manipulate and control this person. This seems to be an argument that is so easily countered I would like to use a very simple example.

Imagine John, in general we do not know anything about him. Now imagine that John lives in a country where the government finds and murders gay people. John seems to be safe. John is just John. But if you know that John once browsed a website about homosexuality, he is not as safe anymore as he was a few sentences ago. What about if it is known that John lives in a certain city, knows Jane and Joan and drives a black car? Now John can already be narrowed down quickly. This is obviously a very simplified example, but it holds true for all infringements of privacy.

Evolution of Personal Space

The human race has always had privacy issues throughout history. There have been several defining moments that were key to our privacy.

Key Moments in History

Two moments can be defined as important pillars of how our personal privacy has changed. After all, we used to be all free-roaming people doing whatever we wanted to do.


The first step towards information collection was the obligation to use a family name. People were named based on their jobs (Carpenter), heritages (Washington) or personal characteristics (Brown). This grouping enabled leaders (kings, emperors or dukes) to better keep track of their civilians. Reasons for this vary, from collecting taxes to finding criminals and surveying troublemakers.

Another key moment in time is the requirement of identification. I.D. cards were created, or a substitute such as drivers licenses, to be able to accurately keep track of persons. This allowed those keeping order to be able to easily identify wanted criminals and instilled some sort of accountability in people.


The second big step is the enhancement of technology. Because of information technology, telecommunications, a spike in data storage and the simplicity of collecting information, it has become a lot easier to find, accumulate and organize data.


As you can see by the previous examples, there are a variety of situations and reasons in which these tracking methods were applied. This varies from simple and seemingly innocent motives such as taxing, to very extreme and violent measures such as ethnic cleansing during the Nazi reign.

Data Collection

There are a lot of measures taken by governments to garnish more and more knowledge. In all countries there are more cameras installed in the streets, in shops, in ATM’s and on every public and private corner. If you enter the U.S.A. you have to have your fingerprints scanned and a picture taken to catalogue your biometrics. Your passport contains a chip (RFID) that gives governments (and the companies who make those trackers) the ability to check your movements. The military of several countries have used drones to find war criminals, but there are test runs for domestic surveillance.

Just as governments have many available channels to collect information because of their privileged situation, corporations have an equal amount of ways to get more information. The most significant ones are technological companies, who have perfected their ability to garnish data. Google, who controls more than 90% of all the searches on the internet can link together information by cross-referencing search data, IP data, mail content, contact information as well as social information. Not to forget the records they can trace if you are using an Android phone. Location information, call logs, text messaging, app usage and countless others are readily available. Facebook with its wide variety of information that can be filled out and interpersonal connections and projections. For example, one can find out to what class a person belongs, just by looking at information of their network.

Tech companies are not the only ones using and selling information. Credit card companies and banks have the exact numbers on all of your purchases. Supermarkets know exactly what you buy when you always use the same credit card to pay, or even easier when you have a loyalty card. Imagine if that can be cross-referenced with insurance companies and on your next bill there is an ‘unhealthy diet charge’. This can even go further, your medical files are all stored together in the same dossier.

Perceived motive

The explanation for this kind of surveillance and tracking is dual, for both governments as for companies. It is claimed that it is supposed to make your life easier and that it is done for your personal safety and security.

Make Life Easy

This is an argument most suited for companies. They argue that when they know enough about what the people like about their product, which they can adjust accordingly. If Apple would find out 75% of their customers likes red most for their cell phones, it would make a red iPhone. The same goes for advertising. Facebook and Google argue that they can pinpoint behavior of people and customize advertising based on their ‘likes’ and ‘searches’. You would never have to read another spam mail ever again, only the mails you want to receive. The government also uses this argument. Having all your information on your e-id card, it is easier to pay your taxes, get your drivers license renewed or use any governmental service without any hiccups.

Safety and Security

A more commonly cited reason for governments is your own personal safety. All of this tracking, questioning, gathering data and constant surveillance is very easily explained if you can posit that this makes it all easier to catch criminals, stop terrorists, find missing persons and stop crimes from happening.

Numbers do say differently. First of all, the chance of a terrorist attack on an airline is 1 in 25 million, while getting struck by lightning is just 1 in 500,000. Not only that, there is no significant decrease in criminal activity in recent years due to this extra surveillance.

This has not stopped supposedly free governments from changing or misinterpreting laws for their benefit. The Patriot Act instated by President Bush is an unconstitutional law that actively changed and diminished the freedoms of the American population. This is not the only legislative action that has occurred. In recent months there has been an uproar in the tech community around SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), PIPA (Personal Information Protection Act) and ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement). These are three bills (the first two in the United States and the latter in the European Union) that basically enable censorship of the internet. This means that governments, companies and civilians can remove easily (or file a claim to remove) websites from the internet. A major discontent about these potential laws has been shown across the world and these have been effectively shut down or suspended for the moment.

Actual Motive: Greed & Power

The implications of the three censorship bills are the exact motives for governments and companies to implement such measures and attack our privacy. The ability to make more money by overprotecting intellectual property and the desire to control the masses lies at the base of these procedures.


Because of the way our capitalist system is built up, the companies have an insatiable yearning for growth. This has been proven to fade ethical boundaries. Companies have been accused and convicted for poisoning the environment, abusing their power, taking advantage of low-wage workers and a blatant disregard for their actions on humanity.

Very much in the same manner corporations would like to know everything about their consumer so that they can predict their buying behavior and manipulate the consumer by attaching themselves to the subconscious and interest on a personal level. Companies, by nature, lack empathy for the human condition, and therefore have no limits when it comes to respecting our personal space.


Censorship is nothing more than the control of the information we receive. By controlling the things people know and learn, you can control their minds and thoughts. You can steer people in the desired direction. Whether it is to vote for a party, give a certain idea traction or just to keep the masses entertained.

The same goes for the lack of privacy. If everything is known about you, it is very easy to control your emotions (by linking certain topics to your emotional preferences), your thoughts (by convincing friends, finding your personal contact points and altering information in between them).

If history has taught us one thing, it is that by combining enough information about the population with the ability and willingness to do what is in the elite’s best interest, terrible things could follow.

Take back control

These motives are not the most positive outcome of this story, but it is a likely one. Therefore it is imperative to know how we can avoid giving up too much information about ourselves that could be used for evil.

As Hasan Elahi, a professor at the University of Maryland said in his TED talk titled “FBI, here I am!” :

"I've come to the conclusion that the way you protect your privacy -- particularly in an era where everything is catalogued and everything is archived and everything is recorded -- there's no need to delete information anymore. So, what do you do when everything is out there? Well, you have to take control of it. If I give you this information directly, it's a very different type of identity than if you were to try and go through bits and pieces."


First and foremost, being aware of when you are giving up your private data, what information you give up, what it could be used for and with whom it could end up.

1) When: every time you hand over any information about you or anybody or anything that surrounds you

2) What information: Be aware that some information is more valuable than other. For example: your first name is already for a big part publicly available

3) What usage: be aware that data can be used in combination with other data. For example: combining eating habits with insurance information

4) Who: data can be sold or claimed. Your data does not always stay with the organization you gave it to. Check the privacy policy, and also privacy policies can change. Just look at Google, Facebook and Twitter. The last recently announced it'll censor messages in specific countries or regions to be allowed by such governments to continue their business.


Know your rights. Be aware that not talking or not answering questions is a right. Be aware that it is your and other people’s right to express their opinion, even if it does not agree with the common belief or the view of the political party in power. Support these rights, stand up for these rights and understand why they are so very needed in a world such as this one.


Finally, there are several practical actions one can take to see that your information stays with you.

1) Do not say anything you do not want others to know.

2) Read privacy policies or find a source that explains them well and accurately.

3) Use the law. For example: as an EU citizen you can ask any company (let us say Facebook) for access to your information and they are obliged by law to delete this information if you request it

4) Use technological tools that help you protect your identity. There are alternatives to all major corporations, a few examples at present;

a. Online search: DuckDuckGo, Scroogle

b. No IP tracking: Tor network, reputable privacy providers

c. Safer browsing: Firefox

d. No cookie tracking: BetterPrivacy Browser Plugin (and many more)

5) Learn and configure your software privacy & security settings

a. Turn off location tracking on your smartphone, tablet and the like

b. Turn off information sending in software

c. Change your privacy settings on Social Media (or do not use them)

d. Disable Google tracking


The vivid protests against SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and the rise of anonymous together with the #occupy movement shows hope and a clear signal that people understand the threat against privacy, the governments’ (corporations') looming need for control and the attacks on our freedom. Greed and Power lead the way at present, without people standing up nothing will ever change.

All over the world, there are counter movements sprouting and taking a stand against these unnerving actions from governments and organizations alike. Since the notion of privacy, control and censorship has gotten to be a subject on which there has been more and more shared knowledge, it has spread from the tech world to politics to academics and even to the so-called ‘common man’. Because of this turning-point in history where top-tech CEO’s such as Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Eric Schimdt (Google) have claimed that the times of privacy are over, people are becoming aware that this is not the case and that it has evolved into a matter of principle. What many people do not fully realize (anymore) is that they do have the power to change the world if they can let go long enough of their daily distractions and toys.

One can look to the future not with despair and fear for a realization of a modern Orwellian 1984, but a world where people are informed and are aware of their rights as human beings. We can only hope that the entire world, from the high-educated and wealthy person in Europe to the poor and illiterate person in Africa, will understand the severity of this issue and protest when these freedoms are attacked. It is not too late.

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The TriTeam

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