Who protects data privacy?

There are two reasons why individuals usually do not want to share information: it must be too important or irrelevant. Whatever is considered unimportant is disregarded; however, sometimes the extremely important information takes one way — it is kept private. Governments have their espionage programs private; US’s CIA agent’s identity are kept private. But what happens when someone else has control over your privacy? What happens when other people decide what is important or not in your life to be kept secret?

Before the Internet, collecting data was a cumbersome process and keeping it secret was easier because the tools for dissemination were not as efficient. Currently, every time an Internet user wants to do business online, check information or join online groups, a great portion of this user’s data will be retrieved. The online services that are generally ‘free for all’ can be the most deceitful towards data privacy.

In order to join Facebook, potential users do not have a choice: if they do not agree with Facebook’s privacy terms (which means allowing FB to share your information) they won’t become a user of the social network. The same goes with other outlets such as Twitter, Google and so forth. As discussed in one of our online sessions, “these online tools do not ask joiners to pay to participate; however, they make a profit from the user by negotiating people’s information.” Clearly, Social Media networks decide what information they would like to keep private, even though the user is the one who has ownership over this data.

A increasing number of researches have been guided toward creating tools to data privacy. However, these tools are not used by ordinary citizens but the private sector and governments. As an example, the PET initiative, privacy enhancing technologies, proposes a few data privacy protection techniques. The four types of PET, described by Agre Rotenberg’s work on ‘Technology and Privacy,” can be found as concepts named subject-oriented, object-oriented, transaction-oriented and system-oriented. These concepts although create tools to protect identities, there is the debate if they are truly enhancing privacy – as privacy is also seen as holding a social value, according to Rotenberg.

Another data privacy tool that is important to be taken into consideration, is encryption. Most countries do not have regulations regarding encryption products. However, according to Barth and Smith’s work ‘International Regulation of Encryption: Technology will Drive Policy”, countries like the United States do have policies that regulate export of encryptions while, on the other hand, lacks regulations on imports.  Unlike the US, China has strong control not only over the export of encryption products but also over imports – as described by Barth and Smith.  China’s policy on encryption products reflects its strong state control over the way information is disseminated and to whom is shared.

Despite of Governments’ aim to find techniques to protect data privacy, Lessig brings to light a relevant reminder: not only governments find ways to protect data, private sector does it, sometimes, even more proactively than the state. One aspect addressed by Lessig is the use of architecture as a way to regulate data. For instance, Lessig mentions that websites are built in a way that you must follow certain rules to have access to certain information. He offers, as an example, the necessity to enter a password to have access to your email and/or a variety of sources for information access. These ways of coding information is mostly done by the private sector, as currently data has become a ‘commodity.’

Throughout this analysis it seems clear that the ordinary citizens do not have applicable rights and tools to protect their own information. Unfortunately, this power relies on the hands of the government and profitable companies. For most of us, the only way to protect our information seems to be offline: not joining social networks, not having online bank accounts and the list for the ‘don’ts’ goes on. If citizens want to be ‘connected’ they must trade the Internet ‘connectivity’ with their personal information.

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