Privacy has become one of the central themes in the digital debate. On one side, it has been declared long gone in the so-called post-privacy era, and, on the other side, we find privacy advocates that cannot let a day pass without underlining the importance of the fundamental right. Previously, I already stated that privacy has become a dogma. People tend only to focus on what it does and on which team in the discussion they should reside. However, there is no need for either sacrificing innovation or rights protection.

If we ask ourselves: why is privacy important? In a democratic society, it is of grave importance that people develop themselves and are free in doing so. This way, one can form his own opinions and beliefs, without feeling constraint by a government or other almighty entity. This is also the situation that George Orwell so well describes in his novel 1984. The citizens are watched in their every step to the extent that even their thoughts are restricted by the government of Big Brother.

The right to freely develop one’s identity is fundamental to the liberal doctrine. Without free individuals, democracy is only a charade. Privacy is a derivative of the protection of identity. It is commonly known that information is power, and thus that knowing a lot about someone eventually gives power over this person. This can be seen in the way targeted advertising works, but also in more harmful acts like extortion. Therefore, the protection of privacy is a means to protect one’s identity.

For me, privacy is not a goal in itself. The protection of identity is the fundamental right I cherish. In some occasions, traditional privacy is the right tool, in other cases it is too much. For example, humans are social creatures that want to go outside and interact with other people. If I were to follow the traditional notions of privacy strictly, I would have a place to hide myself away, completely lost from friends and family, but also a place where I would be deeply unhappy.

The political reality: transparency please!
Some time ago, I successfully defended the identity-right as fundamental right to replace traditional privacy on the congress of my political party. However, when we are finished with getting our ideas and notions straight, we still have to clean up. In other words, one needs to translate all these nice ideals in tools that help citizens and companies to a solution in this debate.

Transparency is the first step towards a solution. The data protection legislation that we have allows sending a letter with a copy of your passport to a company in order to receive a detailed list of all the raw information they have about you after waiting two months. This is not helpful at all: it is bureaucratic for companies, a hassle for citizens, and just results in useless mounts of paper. It would be much nicer if one could login to his favourite social network and browse along the “identity dashboard”.

We have the know-how and technology to make nice interfaces that give easily understandable information on our privacy concerns. Such a means of transparency could be used to pro-actively inform people on the status of their personal information. In building such systems, it is important to keep in mind that it is in the best interests of both parties that this information is intelligible: highly detailed information may give away too many details about systems that could contain trade secrets and is probably too complex for the user.

The real threat: profiling
A probably more important threat to citizens is profiling. This refers to the technique of collecting loads of (anonymous) data and using this to correlate properties. For example, using profiling technologies one could indicate how much you should pay for your car insurance or deliver you adverts concerning products you are most likely to buy. The main problem with such technologies is that decisions that will affect people are made without any human interaction.

In this case, it also starts with transparency. Once again, people should be informed when such a decision has been made, in short, simple and intelligible terms. Please note that profiling technologies heavily rely on trade secrets, and are very complex, which makes it even more important to underline the need for easily understandable information.

Actually, profiling decisions are commonly not deemed personal data, because they make use of data warehouses containing anonymous information. Nevertheless, these systems effect the identity of people by far more than traditional privacy infringements. This also shows why identity protection supersedes traditional privacy.

The Germans got it right?
Credits should be given where they are due: the Germans already have the identity right and are doing much better when it comes to transparency, especially when it concerns profiling technologies. Therefore, this is something where we can and should learn from the experiences in Germany.


One Response to Traditional Privacy may be Dead, Identity Protection Survives

  1. […] data that is required for profiling. The cookies are not really the ones you should be scared of, it is the profiling and information collecting that harms your free identity, as this has direct effect on how you browse the web. After all, a large behavioural advertising […]

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