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What is privacy?

Privacy at its most basic can be understood as the right to be left alone. Broadly speaking, ‘privacy’ is the ability:

  • to be free from interference and intrusion,
  • to associate freely with whoever you want, and
  • to be able to control who can see or use information about you.

Privacy as a concept is directed towards protecting the autonomy of individuals. Privacy protections have been used to limit the ability of governments to interfere with the day to day lives of their citizens. For example, many of the advances made in the protection of LGBTQ people and reproductive rights have been achieved through legal protections for privacy. It is also important to keep in mind that, like many rights, privacy is not absolute and so will be subject to limits that are necessary for a properly functioning society. However we should always expect that any such limits are both necessary and proportionate.

In its modern form, privacy encompasses a range of overlapping concepts including: 

  1. information privacy: rules governing the collection and use of your personal data,
  2. physical privacy: free from interference and intrusion in your own (physical) environment, and
  3. surveillance: monitoring your activities in public or semi-public spaces.

Why should I care? 

It has been suggested that privacy is something that we shouldn’t care about any more. Putting aside questions about the sincerity of those making those arguments, This idea is that privacy doesn’t have a place in the modern social-media world. However, if you think that you should be able to be friends with whoever you want to, date whoever you want to, and control who knows things about you and when they know them, the you should care about privacy.

Furthermore, privacy – and privacy violations – have significant psychological, social, economic, political and legal dimensions and impacts. 

Psychological and social dimensions

The social and psychological dimensions relate to how we, as humans, interact within groups. As social animals, humans are subject to a number of psychological processes which can change their preferences and the decisions they make. The reason why social media companies want to know as much about you as possible is so that they can enable marketers to influence your decision making by manipulating those psychological processes.

Its not hard to see how a breach of privacy will have psychological impacts too. Imagine people finding out that you are queer before you feel ready to come out. Or that you have a serious illness when you didn’t want to tell people. In one particularly infamous example, Target (in the US) predicted a teenager’s pregnancy and inadvertently revealed this to her father. Even things that seem less significant may have potentially significant consequences for an individual.

Political dimensions

The politician dimensions of privacy are playing out in today’s electoral contests. Most individuals today get their news from social media and the news they receive is tailored based on personal information about them known by the social media platform. The extent of this tailoring of news has been seen the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where personal information from over 50 million Facebook users were harvested and used to target messaging.

This has two particularly concerning effects that have been discussed widely elsewhere. The first is the creation of ‘information bubbles’ which means different groups have different facts. The second effect is that it polarises and leads to increasingly extreme points of view being distributed.

Privacy laws are the legal manifestation of privacy rights. These laws create obligations for governments, businesses and individuals to respect other people’s right to be left alone. The laws limits the extent to which malicious actors can interfere with other people. These actors range from marketing companies that exploit vulnerable consumers, cyber-criminals committing fraud or online theft, domestic violence perpetrators and entities seeking to interfere with democratic processes.

The main focus of much of privacy law is protecting personal information. For organisations and businesses, there are two sides to this. The first is compliance – this means making sure that your business processes and projects handle people’s information appropriately. The second is what do to if there is a privacy breach – how to respond to the incident in a way that minimised the harm to your business and you clients or consumers.

Robust and transparent privacy practices have ongoing benefits for organisations by building trust and public trust and consumer confidence. In 2017, the Australian Community Attitudes to Privacy Survey reported that 58% of Australians chose not to deal with a business due to privacy concerns and that concerns about online privacy are continuing to rise. Accordingly, companies should strive to take active measures to protect – and be seen to be protecting – your clients’ and customers’ personal information will. 

While privacy is good practice, there is also a stick – in Australia, the Privacy Act 1988 regulates how businesses entities handle personal information including its collection, use, disclosure, storage and access. The Act prescribes serious consequences for businesses that fail to comply with these requirements, where a business involved in a data breach could be subject to fines (as of September 2020) of up to $2.1 million for organisations or $420,000 for individuals.

As technological innovation continues to progress, personal information and data is constantly being collected and exchanged by individuals, companies and governments.  

Privacy protection empowers individuals to create limits on the way information about them is used to avoid unwanted interference or intrusion. This ability to protect against unwanted interference is a human right. 

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