Privacy comes with rising cost across the world

Privacy matters. Safeguarding it, though, has become costly: it is now a luxury to disconnect. These days, disconnecting is not just about unplugging and wellbeing, the lush idea of “digital-free” vacations. It is a critical and increasingly challenging aspect of maintaining our personal space.

A couple of months ago I initiated a brief Twitter poll asking people which technological development they considered most concerning with a view to privacy: the Internet of Things (IoT), Smart Cities, or digital government initiatives, such as digital ID?

Out of the 180 people who voted, a third opted for “None, privacy is dead”. Still 30% chose IoT, 22% digital ID, 15% Smart Cities. Comparatively clear results you could say but things got a lot more interesting in the comments section. Among the clear minority of Smart Cities’ voters, several emphasised that you can’t opt-out from the public sphere, which is why this development threatened their sense of control and self-determination the most. In other words:

It’s not the tech, it’s whether I have a choice to disconnect or not.

I used these results to set the scene for a fascinating, more nuanced panel discussion during this year’s RightsCon in Toronto, featuring Joana Varon, ED Coding Rights, Brazil, Scout Brody, ED Simply Secure, USA, and Ephraim Kenyanito, Digital Program Officer Article 19, Kenya. Building on personal stories and doing their best to carve out cultural differences in their takes on these technological developments, these renown experts left the audience with astute — and frankly worrisome — observations to ponder.

IoT, especially in our homes, touches upon our need for intimacy. We grant these devices access to all parts of our lives — because it’s so wonderfully convenient not to have to worry. Basically, until you start thinking about surveillance, security breaches, obstacles to interoperability, energy resources and and and.

The pitfalls of Smart Cities seem less tangible. We learned that the introduction of such concepts is often justified with better security, less crime and corruption in Latin America and Africa — only to end up being used against opposition, for manufacturing evidence, and with a sweeping neglect of handling sensitive data.

The immense push for the use of biometrics in digital ID projects comes with staggering security risks that are only aggravated by the fact that many are implemented in public-private partnerships. Often, notably in Africa, these leave questions around how our data is being used, where it is stored, and who has access to it unanswered. What is worse, where data protection regimes are lacking, the road to redress is painstakingly blocked.

Taken together, these developments leave us feeling overwhelmed, at the whim of both public and private actors that we can only hope have our best interest at heart. And yes, cynicism was widespread in the discussion, which we figured might also put the “privacy is dead” folks into a more understandable perspective. Personal control, individual choice, self-determination — things that are closely intertwined with the need for privacy, seem more and more out of reach. The crystal clear take-away from this session: privacy remains a primary concern that we must defend on all fronts.

Before you dismiss this as an isolated, biased sentiment, let me share three additional instances heightening these observations.

At re:publica in Berlin this year, I gave a talk with two colleagues of mine about the future of the voice-enabled internet. The potential of technologies that allow such a natural interaction, overcoming all sorts of access barriers is incredible. Yet in conversations and interviews before and after our talk, people kept coming back to their main concern: the security and privacy of our data. Even more interesting was the fact that people would ask how we could ensure the anonymity of highly sensitive, biometric voice data — in light of the GDPR but also with concerns around emotional manipulation or other forms of trickery.

In Morocco, during the inaugural CyFy Africa, we dispelled claims that privacy was a long outdated concept with the help of a Twitter poll ran by Gbénga Sèsan, ED of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, inquiring people under 24 whether they still cared about privacy: 301 votes, 47% “Absolutely!” — which was pretty illustrative of the general sense in the room. African participants explained that for them, privacy might not be spelled out in their constitutions, but it clearly formed the basis for human dignity and hence couldn’t be more fundamental.

Earlier this year, we used the Mozilla handle for a Twitter Q&A on the idea of #LuxuryToDisconnect with Frederike Kaltheuner, Nex, and Diego Naranjo. Among their recommendations going forward:


Frederike said, “There’s nothing wrong with being connected, or always-on, always-sharing — but it has to be on our terms: I want to be in charge. Regulation can play an important role, from data protection to competition law and consumer protection.” And Diego went with deleting social media accounts, worrying less about branding yourself online, and increasing your offline activities like walks in the park, picnics, or meeting friends.

Obviously, the audience of my Twitterverse and the conferences I speak at tend to be on the more activist, privacy-sensitive end of the spectrum — which might not necessarily hold true for the majority of people “IRL”. At the same time, they are not blissfully detached. Instead I’d highlight that they provide snapshots from all continents, with insights from a range of different people — all of them pointing to the growing sense of urgency and an understanding that we’re at the verge of raising attention to the importance of our privacy with an increasingly mainstream audience.

People haven’t lost their curiosity about innovation or the knack for playfulness and convenience. But, as technology enters and pervades all spheres we need to give people a sense of control. Part of that is related quite plainly to trust. Do we trust that public and private actors will respect our choices and protect our rights? Being trustworthy is a hard-earned, constant practice. Tech must be a user agent — and that includes allowing us to disconnect from it, regardless of where we are culturally, politically, economically.

Strategy expert, focusing in intersection of technology, human rights, global governance, and sustianability