During the last few months, we have seen controversial cases involving the unauthorized dissemination of photos from celebrities’ private handphones. But this is only the beginning of the privacy-loss phenomenon, and our generation is doomed to see more.The handphone camera is one of the most visible examples, but there are plenty of other new gadgets and tools that will contribute to the loss even more. They include the ubiquitous video monitoring in airports and shopping malls, satellite imaging and the proliferation of electronic cash such as credit cards and debit cards.
One of the most striking developments is the use of Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. An RFID tag may function as a barcode, and is connected to a network where information about the tag holder is stored. This chip tag has been used to track lost animals and has been implanted in humans to replace magnetic cards.
Mohamad Mova Al ‘Afghani, Bremen, Germany
But that’s not all. Consider the development of sensors, which are getting smaller and can detect everything from heartbeat to glucose level and blood type. There are also those handy gadgets that help you find your way up a mountain or down the freeway. If you use the Global Positioning System (GPS), your latitude and longitude could be available to others on the main server. If you use a GSM handphone, your location is trackable through the nearest Base Transceiver System (BTS) antenna.
These chips, cameras, sensors and magnetic cards all contain information about you, including anything from billing statements, to glucose levels and blood types, to data on your purchases, or your current location.
In addition to using all these devices, people nowadays also share their private lives through the internet, blogs, video streaming and podcasts. The information in blogs varies from the kinds of gifts people receive from their loved ones to how old their kids are, which schools they attend and their pictures. And let’s not forget the words we query in search engines.
All of this cyber-sharing yields trackable information that is stored in mainframes. It can be used to figure out your political affiliations, religious background and consumption preferences. It must be underlined that unlike conventional surveillance mechanisms, these activities that threaten privacy are all things the potential victims do voluntarily.
How well-prepared are societies to safeguard this information? The strictness of privacy protection differs from one jurisdiction to another. Internationally, privacy is protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; however, this Article may not be as strongly binding as a positive law. In the United States, privacy is stringently protected through the Fourth Amendment and several Supreme Court rulings. In other societies it may be only loosely protected.
There are some other laws related to privacy, such as those that protect medical records and trade secrets and those that obligate disclosure. Medical records are a patient’s right, and it’s a crime to publish them without proper authorization. Trade secret laws protect, for example, the secret ingredients of a commercial beverage.
Disclosure laws are normally imposed on public companies and other companies that have public stakeholders, or on food and cosmetic producers to ensure they are complying with consumer laws. These laws essentially deal with the management of information.
In the future, it is likely that privacy protection will be severely eroded and things which are considered privacy violations today will no longer be categorized as crimes. There had been several court cases which hold that privacy protection is irrelevant.
We can use legal history to predict the future trends of privacy regulation. During the Roman age, there was a maxim which held, “Cujus est solum, ejus est usque ad coelum et ad inferos (Whosoever has the soil, also owns to the heavens above and to the center beneath). The value of land ownership was absolute, and no one had the right to trespass it, above or below, without the consent of its owner.
However, this maxim was abandoned when it became inconsistent with technological development; specifically, during the first years of aviation history. Planes now have the right to fly in the skies, irrespective of any property below them. That is also the case with the “to the center beneath”.
The erosion of privacy will carry several consequences. The first problem, surveillance, raises the classic issue that “power tends to corrupt”. If we are all being watched, then who supervises the supervisors? What will they do with our data?
Another problem is identity theft. This is often carried out on the Internet, since digital identity is vulnerable to fraud.
A growing “privacy gap” is the third problem. In the future, privacy is going to be expensive. You can protect an RFID tag, for example, by using passwords to make access difficult. You can do something similar with satellite imagery. If you do not want your roof or swimming pool to be photographed, you need to shield them, but it will cost you money. This means privacy will eventually belong only to the wealthy.
The fourth problem is the rise of sentience (things with autonomous sensory capability) and its contribution to personalization. Today, web pages, news services, desktop and handphone features can be personalized in order to better meet our needs.
Sentience development opens the door to highly targeted marketing. If I use sentient mechanisms to find about somebody’s reading habits, his spending patterns, his political affiliations, what toys his kids want, where he usually has dinner, which roads he uses and what his health problems are, I can advertise a particular book on the billboards he passes, send campaign volunteers to the restaurant where he’s eating, or woo him for a business deal by bringing his kids’ dream toys to the meeting.
Personalization tends to prevent people from being exposed to different realities and allows them to become preoccupied with their own world. Personalization could direct us into “the matrix”, as it confuses people between true reality and artificial realities.
It is high time we consider the mandatory unbundling of information. There will be a high risk of moral hazards when personal data from banking, health and politics is administered by a single institution or company. As for the corruptive power of surveillance, some have proposed making every aspect of governance transparent and accountable so that people can supervise the supervisor. These steps and more must be weighed in order to keep privacy from becoming as outdated a concept as that old Roman maxim on property.
The writer (email@example.com) is a lawyer and lecturer, and is currently studying in Germany.
Related RFID journal entries visit this link.
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