Identity Report

09 January 2019

Surveillance is everywhere, transparency is an end in itself and information is traded cheaply. Openness is a virtue: if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. The world is giving up an intangible notion of privacy in return for tangible benefits: security, access, entertainment and convenience. That’s a good trade, so privacy must be dead, right? Why waste time mourning its loss?

The information revolution has not only sped up the pace of change, it has increased its rate of acceptance. It took decades for electricity to reach communities. In places, it still hasn’t. On the other hand, in less than a single decade, almost everyone carries a portable computer and accepts its expanding role in their lives, often without question. Some of those computers are literally getting under our skin. The Big Brother warnings are whispers in the winds of change.

Furthermore, the media has recast our private lives as sources of furtive embarrassment. If we want privacy, we must be looking for secrecy. To see why the media makes this argument, follow the money. Intrusions into privacy are not only standard journalistic fodder, they are good for business as margins get tighter.

The media has formed an accidental alliance with governments, preoccupied by security, and tech companies, pre-occupied by progress. All three might have an interest in implying that privacy is dead. Not that they need to imply it strongly, because many of us are complicit: ticking the box and buying in with barely a whimper.

But there are good reasons to take a different position and to have a debate about privacy in the 21st century. That debate could first address some existential questions. Does privacy make us human? What role does it play in understanding ourselves and others? How does privacy give us space to exercise our imaginations, to create and to challenge? Without privacy, to what extent do we become components of the mainframe; traces in a melded blob of humanity?

Then there is the question of our relationship with technology. Technology should enrich, not diminish our lives. It requires care to ensure that it remains a liberating force rather than the cause of oppression and exploitation. Without foresight, information technology will strip layers from our privacy and make servants of its masters. This is even more the case as artificial intelligence and machine learning continue to play an increasing role in our lives. The robots are being given rules and values – but what should these be and how will we as individuals be affected? How will the rule of law and personal responsibility apply in the virtual world?

And the law has something to say. We have a legal right to a private life. The law balances privacy with freedom of expression by applying a test. What’s more in the public interest: my right to say what I like about your affairs, or your right to keep them private? A similar weighing of the scales occurs between privacy and security, or privacy and progress. However inconvenient, this important question of legal balances should be considered in each case, rather than turned into a done deal for all. And let’s go back to 1948 to remind ourselves that we are talking about human rights. Article 12 of the UN Universal Declaration:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with their privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon their honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Personal privacy makes a contribution to collective productivity. Excessive intrusion and transparency is not good for productivity – the Holy Grail for our economies. The greater the scrutiny, the lower the willingness to take risks and to think the rewards are worth the hassle. But if nothing is ventured, nothing will be gained. Exposing wrong-doing is justified; sucking the life out of creativity, hard work and aspiration is not.

Every transformative age needs a review of the ground rules. The information age needs some for privacy. It is better that those rules result from a debate, rather than evolve randomly or are imposed by vested interests. In the meantime, individual privacy is worth fighting for and it can be protected, albeit in new ways, with new expectations. With forward planning it is still possible to secure modern privacy, on our terms.

This article was first published in the Family Office Magazine Winter 2018/2019 on 3rd January 2019. Click here to read the original article.

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About the Author

Tim Robinson


Formerly a Major General in the British Army, Tim Robinson CBE helps clients to protect their reputations and privacy from the wide range of threats they face.

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