Security Versus Freedom?

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Updated: May 10, 2021
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Welcome to the Digital Age. In today’s connected world, we are living much of our live online. As a result, companies everywhere are creating large storehouses of data on all of us. The most obvious information being collected is social media data. Everything we post publicly and some cases privately, is being stored and analysed. But it is not just social media, there is now a digital record of everything we buy, everything we watch, where we go and what happens at our house. Even our physical characteristics are tracked and stored. All of this data is being used to create profiles of us. Using unique algorithms, they are able to provide marketing strategies directly to us. Some groups are even profiling our personality to specially adapt their interaction with us. The aggregation and storage of this data is becoming one of the most profitable enterprises on the planet. Everything we post, tweet about, like and more is being collected. Even the location from where we post can be gathered, and can be tracked in real- time, putting us at risk. Even after social media accounts are deleted, personal information can still be collected through a variety of means. One US based data broker, Axiom, claims to have files on 10% of the world’ population. It is not just businesses of course. In 2013, Edward Snowden uncovered a vast regime of mass government surveillance programmes, opening a global conversation which is still unfolding today. In this we will take a closer look at this debate, focusing on the related but distinct concepts of privacy and security.

So, the digital age has created new ways to collect, access, and use data, often across multiple border and jurisdictions and unsurprisingly, this poses challenges for human rights. One challenge relates to the way companies use our data. The internet’s business model depends on people sharing their personal data in exchange for access to content, services and social media platforms. While we might not pay anything upfront to go on Facebook, Instagram, Amazone, Google, Youtube and Tweeter, they still make money from us by selling our personal information to advertisers. By clicking “agree” to terms of service, users technically consent to this model. But in practice, virtually no one actually reads them. This is a problem because no one knows what they are really signing up to, which creates opportunities for missuses. Another challenge relates to the collection of personal data by governments. Technological development now enable government to monitor our conversations, transactions, and the locations we visit. In some countries- including Russia, Brazil, Australia and South Korea – companies are legally required to store this data locally for long periods of time, making it easier for government to get information on their citizens. These measures are often introduced in the name of fighting cybercrime and terrorism. But without adequate protections, this data can easily be abused to target dissidents and activists – undermining freedom of expression and the right to association and assembly. And these are just the technologies we have now. Emerging technologies- like the Internet of Things, wearables, and artificial intelligence – are likely to pose new challenges to human rights. So we need to be prepared for these too.

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There are many bodies and forums where privacy and security issues are discussed and defined: National and regional courts have a crucial role here. The European Court of Human Rights, for example, has imposed limits on “stop and search” practices by the police, and on the amount of time data can be legally retained. At the national level, it is common to find a specific public bode responsible for privacy and security. This can be a specialist post or an ombudsman. But the extent to which is defined and protected varies greatly between different jurisdictions. For example, there is no clear right to privacy in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. However, there are mechanisms at the international level. Following a UN resolution on the right privacy in the digital age, the Human Rights Council has established a new Special Rapporteur for Privacy. And various internet policy forums, like the Internet Government Forum (IGF), the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and conferences, like HOPE and CyFy, also contribute to shaping the scope of privacy in the digital age.

And finally, we have companies. The decisions of companies can also have a huge impact on data protection and privacy rights. For example, by building end-to-end encryption into their software, as WhatsApp did in early 2016. Let’ look at two examples of privacy and security in the real world. First, let’s look at the Apple vs. FBI case. After the 2016 terrorist attacks in the US city of San Bernardino, the FBI asked apple for the information stored on the iPhone of one of the suspects. However, Apple’ operating system is encrypted and only accessible through a pin code. The FBI asked Apple to modify the system to let them in. Apple refused – opening a lively debate on the right to privacy versus security needs. The case was almost taken to court – but in the end the FBI found a vulnerability to crack the phone. In privacy terms, this was a legal setback. But if the case had gone to court, it could have helped popularise the risks of weakening encryption for society and establish what constitutes a legitimate on privacy by the state.

Next, let’ look at surveillance in Kenya. In Kenia, a combination of invasive surveillance measures and a lack of adequate data protection facilitated a crackdown on civil society in 2013, which was documented by Peace Brigades International. Many human rights defenders had their offices raided, computers hacked, and phones tapped by the government. One of the ways human rights defenders have been fighting back is by pushing for the ratification of Kenya’s first data protection law, long stalled in Parliament. If implemented properly, this could limit the worst excesses of state surveillance. But Kenya is by no means the only country to bring in surveillance legislation justified by security concerns. But this example is a good demonstration of how seemingly abstract restrictions on online privacy can have physical consequences in the offline world.

So, if we not want public authorities or our next employer to know more about us then we know about ourselves, what can we do to protect and strengthen our privacy and security? An easy first step is taking digital security measures ourselves. This can be as simple as using encryption and anonymity tools and encouraging our friends to do the same. We can also advocate for alternative digital business models, which are not based on the extraction and sale of data. Economic pressure on the existing models is already growing. For example, over the last few years, the number of users using adblock software globally has exploded. So, there is evidence that this is already pushing companies to less invasive advertising practices. Engagement in debates at the national and regional level is, of course, crucial. Where privacy protections are weak, we need to actively advocate for stronger ones. And even where they are stronger, we need to make sure legislation is keeping up with new technological developments – like the internet of Things. Ultimately, if we want things to change, we need to make these issues accessible and relatable by being more creative about the way we talk about them. When people see how their privacy and security affects them on a day-to-day basis, they may be more inclined to engage with these concepts. clearly, this is an issue that is going to be hot for some time, and we will continue to talk about it. We can just benefit of the digital world, if we do it in a smart way and protect ourselves from risks.   

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Security Versus Freedom?. (2021, May 10). Retrieved from