‘History is bunk’ – so said Henry Ford, allegedly.
He was wrong.
Privacy is not ‘bunk’ either, but its debased currency in public policy debates certainly is.
The current unfolding catastrophe has the rights to privacy and data protection under siege (or in lockdown, if you prefer) because, of course, all problems in the world would be solved if only we could ditch those constraints on the use of others people’s personal data.
It’s now “privacy or combat the corona virus” just like – in our now forgotten world of a few weeks ago – it was “privacy, or AI-driven digital growth” and “privacy, or [insert the thing you want to do]”.
The allure of dualisms is their simplicity, a quality we sorely miss in real life. I got thinking about this when I saw this local parish bulletin by Michele Loi, which is well worth reading, and this excellent twitter thread initiated by Paul-Olivier Dehaye. We are having these wearying discussions because privacy has become a proxy for digital regulation; because data is collected all the time and we don’t know why or for whose benefit. We do know, however, that there are a small handful of companies and governments with the power to collect and use the data at scale, and that they are scarcely to be trusted.
So now, with a global emergency, we have an opportunity to make the data work for the general good, to use it protect our fellow human beings against a devastating virus.
Noone is seriously questioning whether we should suspend an individual’s right to be left alone and to be treated with dignity. We live in society so that we can look after one another. Such caring can require intruding into someone’s intimate sphere – metaphorically and digitally speaking, and ironically at the same time as physical proximity becomes taboo. We consent to the intrusions if we believe authorities in charge are democratically accountable for their actions, that certain rights and freedoms can be temporarily limited or even suspended when necessary, but that certain rights – to life and to dignity – are always held inviolable.
I would suggest that those who claim privacy stands in the way of saving human life fall into one of three categories:
a) the mischief-makers (they want to profit from the crisis and in process rid themselves of turbulent regulations),
b) the under-informed (this is no cardinal sin – the laws on digital privacy have become far more complicated than they should be), or
c) the blinkered legalists, who think that reverence for the prolix prescriptions of the GDPR outweighs the need to combat the most serious global emergency since 1945.
Whoever is pushing this proposition, it is a dangerous fallacy.
The way privacy has been written into law may be bunk, but privacy itself never has been, is not and never will be. So stop worrying about privacy. Start worrying about governance, the rule of law and democracy. Those are the key battlegrounds for life and liberty in these surreal times. COVID-19 is democracy’s test run for the true reckoning facing our species in the coming decades: global warming.