For many, George Orwell’s «1984» encapsulates the essence of a terrifying future society. But revelations in recent years about massive phone and data tapping have make Orwell’s descriptions seem harmless by comparison.
Reality has long since overtaken the author’s vision. But just as frightening as the understandable intrusions of state – and companies – into individuals’ private lives is the degradation of the concept of privacy – and therein perhaps also the shame. Astonishingly large numbers of people today are prepared to disseminate their private affairs in public. Some seem barely interested in the threats to their private affairs posed by the many new technologies available and appear unconcerned that they are (or can be) almost constantly observed.
That is troubling on two grounds. First, privacy itself has a high moral value. Protecting it, and preserving the «right to be left in peace» (as future US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis put it in 1890) counts as one of our most recent fundamental achievements. Secondly, and even more important, privacy is the life blood of freedom. The so called «transparent individual» is nothing less than anathema to a free society, irrespective of whether «transparency» is forced upon us by the state obtained surreptitiously by private sector snoopers or naively and voluntarily surrendered by the individual. It is the privacy of every individual – protected from outside observers and influences – that underlies every human being’s autonomy and individuality, and thereby a self determined civil society.
It’s of course also up to politicians to protect privacy – indeed to lavish care and attention on it. Too often, however, the contrary is true. But it is a fundamental of liberal thinking – and a responsibility of every individual – to be attentive to any threat to privacy and to respect that of others. The same applies to setting clear distinctions between one’s own private and public affairs in order to act openly and carefully with the precious good of one’s own «private space». That also applies – indeed even more so – in the digital world.
These remarks come from the foreword by Gerhard Schwarz, Avenir Suisse’s director, to the new avenir spezial publication: “Privacy and the Net.” Comprising 23 contributions, the report on privacy, data protection and the net examines the significance of data protection and data security in everyday life. It asks what lessons can be learned from the leaks by Edward Snowden, the fugitive former NSA contractor, and aims to answer what have become central questions in our relations with the internet.
Individual papers include insights by Avenir Suisse writers into some of the most controversial issues raised by the flood of data now available. They cover areas as diverse as life insurance, personalised medicine and smart metering, and include contributions on practical considerations like encryption, passwords and parental controls. Such insights into cyber security – and data protection in general – are particularly relevant to Switzerland. The country has, on average, the fastest internet connectivity of any state in Europe and the continent’s highest proportion of broadband Connections.