What Privacy Do You Really Have Online?

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

Most people consider privacy a basic right, and if they think deeply enough about it, are in favor of keeping some parts of their lives and the data they generate away from prying eyes, whether they’re talking about the data on their iPhones or the contents of their online searches. Because that’s a widely-held view, you would think that our legislation would have something to say on the matter, at least to define whether or not privacy is a right that we can claim when we’re communicating on our smartphones or browsing content online.

But Carl Herberger reports for TechCrunch that “somehow we missed privacy from the initial design of the Constitution and amendments thereafter.” The so-called right to privacy wasn’t afforded to us by the Founding Fathers of the United States, he explains, “nor does it make up the conscience of our jurisprudence system of government today.” Legally, privacy is nothing more than a regulation or a state-level law focused on data protection — often the protection of only limited kinds of data.

Herberger notes that the U.S. isn’t alone in having few overarching privacy laws, as many people in the world don’t have a legal right to privacy. Even in the best of scenarios, countries only have laws focused on “some notional data element,” like the right to the privacy of healthcare or financial data. But the broader idea of privacy, and how fundamental it is to our daily lives, largely goes unaddressed.

When you think about it, privacy is about more than data. Most people want to keep their private thoughts, moments, and conversations private, free from surveillance, confiscation, or monetization. But we don’t have the legislation in place to afford that protection, and in the meantime, governments and corporations alike do all kinds of things that most reasonable people would consider a violation of their privacy.

Herberger asks, “When one’s life no longer has the intimacy of sharing a sweet-nothing between lovers, or singing alone in the shower, or being able to just be ‘you’ without anyone knowing, recording or watching, is this really a safer and more humane world?”

The issue is larger than the debate over net neutrality or a conversation about cybersecurity legislation — which inevitably lags far behind the evolution of real-world threats and tactics, as evidenced by the Senate’s recent approval of a cybersecurity bill whose central mechanism is mostly outdated as hackers move on to more sophisticated methods. The key question that we aren’t addressing is whether privacy is a fundamental human right, and if it is, how we need to protect it.

We haven’t yet agreed upon an answer to that question, an answer that will settle the debate on how we should regulate information security, and how we should respond to privacy breaches. As things stand now, your privacy is protected only by an inconsistent and often incoherent assortment of rules, regulations, and micro-laws. And because we have no national privacy laws — no legislation that covers our privacy across types of data — we’re beginning to see some very real consequences.

To begin with, Herberger explains, without laws governing the “human aspect” of privacy, data breaches are growing exponentially. You may have already had a credit card replaced because your information may have been accessed in a breach of a retailer or a website. Criminals will continue to steal and monetize your data, resulting in bigger and bigger economic losses.

Secondly, with the advent of the Internet of things, deeper surveillance of our behavior will “erode the notion of what it is to be human itself.” Your interests, your health, your purchases, and your habits will all be predictable and forecastable. Everything you do will be trackable and quantifiable, not just via your smartphone or your computer, but via the constellation of other Internet-connected devices that will soon blink on in your home, in your office, and along your commute.

And finally, it gets more and more difficult to change course as we go farther in the direction that a lack of legislation has set. Herberger projects that as companies realize that they can gain financially by pervading people’s privacy, they’re less and less likely to cede their methods of watching the people whose behavior they’re realizing now they can manipulate.

It’s easy to imagine the bleak future that will result if we allow a lack of legislation to define privacy for us. The debate over whether or not privacy is a right is a difficult one to settle, but a conversation that’s necessary to have if we want the right to privacy legally protected.

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