• By Sin Mei C
  • June 3, 2013

The Big Brother Awards & Practical Privacy

Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) and surveillance on employee’s incoming phone calls by the company Shurgard were each awarded a Belgian Big Brother Award yesterday. Other nominees were the NMBS/SNCB data leak, fingerprint registration at schools, the american anti-privacy lobby, police drones, council-initiated administrative sanctions and social media users in general (that’s you too, Little Brother!).

Licence plate recognition did not win its Big Brother Award solely because it is both privacy-invasive and unlawful. According to the Jury, ANPR also represents the danger of increasingly sophisticated mass surveillance tools, the data mining of linked databases, and the automatic ‘flagging’ of possible suspects based on ill-defined criteria. Additionally, they are worried about cost-effectiveness of the system and put to question the reasons why local councils decide to purchase ANPR systems; is it really our security they are worry about, or are they more interested in getting the additional discounts on existing utility service agreements?

“Privacy is a Human Right”

The title for this year’s ensuing debate was the provoking ‘Privacy is dead, get over it!’. Privacy First’s Vincent Böhre got to defend privacy as a human right, arguing that the legislative powers that be should urgently put a stop to the expanding of our surveillance society, and alter – or at least make a start at creating – laws regarding data retention. Because all might be fine(ish) now, but what if a less democratic and more totalitarian government comes to power? Who knows what they would ‘mine’ for in our data they already have, and which data they’d confiscate from others such as our health and communications providers.

“Privacy is passé”

I completely agree that privacy in itself is a right – not a commodity, as sometimes suggested – which can’t be signed away by the user. However, there’s also something to be said for relinquishing part of those rights, if it benefits us personally, or society as a whole. Because, undoubtedly, a more transparent – and thus possibly also more honest – society would have to have perks too? That’s the idea Guillaume Van der Stighelen advanced. He does not believe privacy is dead, rather that it is.. so last year (privacy is passé). He predicts the right to not be observed will be the subject of generational tension the next decade. Generation X feels strongly about having a basic right to secrecy, whereas Post-Millennials will find it only normal that everything they do is on public display. Just as our opinion on morals severely shifted starting the 1960s, so will we change our mind on what exactly privacy is, and how much we need of it.

Practical Privacy?

And where does this Millennial stand? Well, somewhere in the middle. Privacy is a fairly recent invention; the first cities only emerged only 10,000 years ago and even today many families still share just a single room. I believe there would definitely be value to some of our behaviour being more open and visible again. Less secrecy means less deception, and more – hopefully constructive – feedback and insights on your behaviour. And yes, I consider writing your own story through social media to be empowering, but one should pay attention to the tale one tells. I don’t mind government keeping and processing my and other’s data, if this means I get a better ‘user experience’ such as pre-filled tax forms and automated health benefit returns, and if tax cheats and criminals have a higher chance at getting caught. In exchange for a significant discount on my insurance fee, I’d gladly give the insurance broker access to all of my car data.

If properly implemented, none of the above would actually invade my privacy, as far as I’m concerned. However, I do have trust issues.

  • Governments and companies lack transparency as they don’t communicate clearly what data they gather and store, which processing they do on it, and whom they share and merge it with. All personal information can become ‘sensitive’ when too many databases are linked, and profiling – both online as offline – can have dire consequences.
  • There is too much sloppiness when dealing with personal information. Although there is a European directive regarding data breach notifications, there is no Belgian law that makes notifying customers when personal data is exposed obligatory. Legislation should also be put in place (and enforced) to severely punish those responsible for personal data being compromised. Media should no longer phrase headlines ‘Company’s data stolen’, but ‘Company lost YOUR data’.
  • Although I have the right to request a business deletes all my personal information, that process is often made intentionally cumbersome if not impossible by companies. I’d like my right to be forgotten, please. Or at least an easy way to get outdated personal information and all its derivatives removed so it can’t be abused.

Sadly, at the moment, I feel the value we get from sharing our data with the government, and especially businesses, isn’t enough yet to warrant taking the above listed risks. But with better legislation, technology and fail-safes in place, I’d love to see what a more transparent society could achieve!

All in all, for me the Big Brother Awards contained everything a pleasant evening should have: lovely conversations, mind-stimulating discussion (albeit a bit more focus on corporations and less on government would have been refreshing), and a few takeaways that made me slightly change my ‘privacy-position’. Thank you very much to EMSOC and the Liga voor Mensenrechten for organising, and for keeping out an eye for our right to privacy.

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