[Note: This column originally appeared in Bernews on 28 Jan 2020, International Data Privacy Day]
Holidays are excellent opportunities to reflect. These red-letter days, no matter their place or origin, mark important historical or religious events. When we keep these holidays, we celebrate traditions and reflect on what may have changed or stayed the same. New Year celebrations are a perfect example: wonderful traditions of revelry, but also inspiration to take stock in what we value and resolve to live our lives accordingly.
January 28th is, admittedly, one of the lesser-known holidays, but it is certainly a red-letter date in the privacy community. It represents the anniversary of an important historical event and offers us the chance to reflect on how our society thinks of privacy and the use of personal information.
Data Privacy Day, also called “Data Protection Day” in some places, marks the anniversary of a milestone treaty that enshrined privacy as a fundamental human right. In 1981, various countries in Europe came together and committed to respect their citizens’ privacy. The name of that treaty is very long, so it is often called the Council of Europe’s Convention 108. Since then, the European signatories have been joined by African and South American countries that also ratified the treaty. While more and more countries have domestic laws that protect privacy [like Bermuda’ Personal Information Protection Act], Convention 108 remains the only treaty that legally binds countries under the terms of international law.
To understand how revolutionary this development was, think back to the horrors of the mid-Twentieth Century. The Nazi regime used vital records to target individuals from specific populations, and later Communist governments in Eastern Europe tracked individuals’ associations and speech in order to intimidate or murder dissenters. Because they witnessed the terrible, tragic results, subsequent leaders realized what harms could come from abusive uses of personal data. They realized that greater emphasis should be placed on privacy and data protection–in other words, the ability of individuals to control information about themselves.
While initial concerns related to government use of personal data, in the latter half of the century personal data became commodified. Corporations, multinationals, and other organizations came to possess as much data relating to individuals as any government–and in many cases, more. Technology, and technology companies, became an integral part of our lives, leading to a company or third party being involved in even the simplest of actions or communications. [Consider: how often do you have an in-person conversations? Those using a messaging app or email?] Increasingly, the economic models on which corporations are built relate to “surveillance capitalism,” or the idea that these entities profit by observing consumers and influencing behaviour.
In time, we have learned [sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly] that privacy is not only a fundamental right, it is an enabling right. Privacy enables democratic society to function by protecting freedoms of assembly and secret ballots. Privacy enables our economies by providing the basis for trust in transactions like those online, that may be removed and impersonal. Now and in the not-too-distant future, each of us is being summarized into a profile that delivers “personalized content” and advertisements that shape our worldview; privacy will be essential to maintaining our autonomy and self-determinism, the very integrity of our minds.
Last Monday, as I started my first day as Bermuda’s Privacy Commissioner, my country of birth was celebrating a fellow Georgian, Martin Luther King, Jr. In death, he is memorialized as a champion of fairness, equality, and the dignity of all people. Privacy is an enabling right for these concepts as well, giving each of us the ability to control the face we show the world and to be judged by our choices, not our statistics.
As the great orator said at the March for Integrated Schools in 1959: “Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”
Like its sibling holidays, I propose we keep Data Privacy Day with celebrations and reflections. Let us remember the progress that has arisen from tragedy, and reflect on how we want our society to function. Then, let us all commit ourselves to protecting the fundamental human right to privacy.