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Why Do We Need Human Rights? (23): Privacy, Justifications and Objections

charlie brown privacy

Charlie Brown having some privacy

(source)

The right to privacy has become increasingly important and contested. Here are just a few examples of areas in which violations of privacy have become more common over the last decades:

Since it’s always good to cite the Universal Declaration when talking about human rights, here’s the article about privacy (#12):

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Types of privacy

Privacy is what is called a cluster concept: it covers many different things, things which may seem unrelated at first sight. So, before I go on, here’s a short and tentative typology of different kinds of “privacies” (I’ll mention later what they have in common):

  • Domestic privacy. People have a right to remain secluded and alone in their homes, to keep what happens in their homes and houses to themselves, and to repel intrusion. That’s mostly what is protected by the Fourth Amendment in the US. Issues related to obscenity or pornography laws for example also fall under this type of privacy.
  • Personal privacy. People have a right to keep their thoughts, opinions, or feelings to themselves. The secrecy of postal communication for example falls under this type, as does the secret ballot.
  • Physical (or intimate) privacy. People have a right not to expose their bodies, as well as a right to repel physical intrusion into their bodies. Abortion and some security checks belong here.
  • Informational privacy. People have a right to control what happens to information about themselves (or their families), and to limit involuntary distribution or disclosure of such information. Information here means facts, whether embarrassing or not, rather than opinions. The latter are part of libel law. Information about sexual orientation or salaries is an example of informational privacy.
  • Relational privacy. People have a right to keep some of the details about their relationships to themselves. This includes whom they have what type of sexual intercourse with. Sodomy laws violate this kind of privacy, as do laws regulating the use of contraceptives. People also have a right to decide without interference on the type of relationship that suites them best. This covers laws regulating interracial marriages, same-sex marriages etc.

(There’s also the concept of private property, but I think this can be separated from privacy issues, although private property of a home is obviously a necessary condition for domestic privacy, for example).

cctv and surveillance

(source, source, work by Will Varner)

All these types of privacy have something in common: they are all about independence. Privacy protects an individual’s interest in making independent decisions about her life, family, home, lifestyle, relationships, behavior and communication. All these types of privacy are also about the restriction of access or intrusion. Privacy gives an individual the right to deny access or intrusion by others, more specifically access to or intrusion in her body, her home, her relationships, her mind and certain facts about her life. It’s a right to be let alone.

Justification of privacy

Privacy is justified because it restricts access. Some restrictions of access are necessary for personal identity. There is no “I”, no person, no individual without a border between me and the rest of the world. Such a border is an absolute requirement for the basic human need of personhood and individuality. If people have unlimited access to each other, then there simply won’t be any separate people left. People understood as separate entities require some level of privacy protection. The exact level of privacy and the justified intrusions into people’s private lives are not yet determined by this argument, but the need for some level of privacy and some limitations of intrusions is clear. Other justifications of privacy could be based on the interest people have in intimacy, close personal relationships etc. It’s clear that a world without privacy or even without strong privacy rights would be a horrible world indeed.

Objections to privacy

Some argue that there’s nothing special about privacy and that the concept doesn’t merit an independent existence, let alone legal protection. The many different interests protected by privacy can indeed be protected by other means, such as a right to private property, liberty, bodily security and integrity, or independence.

However, I’m not sure that this is true for all the interests protected by a right to privacy. And an independent notion of privacy gives at least an added protection, partly because of the strong roots of the notion in common language and belief.

karl marx

Karl Marx

Some go even a step further and consider privacy to be detrimental rather than merely superfluous. Marx, for example, viewed privacy as a symptom of an atomized and selfish society, intent on protecting the material self-interest of the haves faced with a possible revolt of the have-nots.

Some feminists as well have forcefully argued that privacy is detrimental to women because of its use as a shield to protect male domination, superiority and abuse. However, it’s not because a right can be abused that it loses all meaning. There wouldn’t be any rights left if that were the case. The challenge is to avoid intrusion in people’s private lives that go too far, while at the same time allowing intrusion that counters abusive private actions. The right to privacy is therefore not an absolute right. But it is a right, and feminists should remember that intrusions into the private sphere can also be detrimental to women (e.g. abortion legislation, forced sterilization etc.).

More here and here.

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globalization, governance, health, human rights video, poverty, statistics

Human Rights Video (10): Hans Rosling on Poverty, Human Rights and Statistics

Researcher Hans Rosling, the great statistics visualizer, uses his cool data tools to show how countries are pulling themselves out of poverty. He also mentions human rights in general (not just the right not to suffer poverty), fertility rates, life expectancy, child mortality, good governance and other stuff this blog cares about. Watch:

More om human rights and statistics. Roslings website is here. More human rights videos.

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The Causes of Poverty (25): The Matthew Effect

The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel, by Rembrandt

The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel, by Rembrandt

(source)

The Matthew Effect – a concept invented by sociologist Robert K. Merton – is based on the following extract of the Gospel of Matthew:

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

This statement is intuitively convincing. Those who already have economic resources can use these to acquire even more of them, often if not by definition at the expense of those who don’t have them. It’s easy to see how wealthy people have better information to use their wealth in such a way that they can increase it. How they know the right people, how they can use the education system to their advantage (and to the advantage of their offspring), how they can use the political system to their advantage etc. Conversely, poor people are often stuck in a poverty trap: their poverty makes them sick, and their sickness even more poor; their poverty makes it hard to access education, and their lack of education makes them more poor etc.

You can see at once how this is relevant to the issue of human rights. While income or wealth inequality as such isn’t a human rights violation, it does have implications for human rights. And poverty is a human rights violation. But the Matthew Effect can be observed in other human rights as well. Take for instance the wiretapping that is used in the war on terror. Initially, wiretapping is targeted towards individuals who are suspected of plotting an attack. However, it seems inevitable that those who are authorized to use wiretapping expand the field of their authority. Instead of targeted wiretapping, they go on fishing expeditions: throwing out the nets as wide as possible and see which fishes end up in it. They start to use data-mining, for instance, checking private information of entire populations in order to filter out suspect individuals.

Another example of the Matthew Effect in human rights can be found in hate speech laws. The laws may initially impose limits on the freedom of speech that crack down on cases of hate speech that may cause violence and riots. However, once certain exceptions on the freedom of speech are legal and legitimate, the boundaries may move towards more restrictions. Maybe speech that doesn’t pose an imminent threat of violence but perhaps a longterm threat to the stability of a multicultural society – such as derogatory speech, or blasphemous speech – should also be prohibited. And then you may find yourself on a slippery slope.

I can also mention what I called “searchlight human rights violations” (see this previous post): for example, a certain level of sexual violence against women in a particular society, can teach young men a certain culture, mentality and value system that automatically leads to a wider use of violence.

However, I don’t believe things are as simple as this. While the Matthew Effect is certainly a force that is driving human rights violations, I don’t think there is anything inevitable or mechanical about it. There are other forces at play as well, and some of them go in the other direction. If that wouldn’t be the case, then the Matthew Effect would have landed us in a place where respect for human rights is non-existent, and would have done so a long time ago.

Regarding the particular case of wealth inequality, a simple application of the Matthew Effect would require a vision of the world with limited resources. And although some – important – resources are indeed limited, others – equally important ones – are not. It’s not because one person receives a good education, that another one must receive less education. And when one person accumulates riches, this can benefit others (his or her employees for example).

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law, privacy, terror, torture, war

Terrorism and Human Rights (19): The War on Terror and the Right to Privacy

war on terror and privacy Ian Waldie Getty Images

war on terror and privacy Ian Waldie Getty Images

(source)

Just a few more thoughts as a follow-up from this post, this one, and this one. During an apparently never-ending war on terror (what could be the end of such a war?), people are quick to believe their “liberal” governments when they tell them that a bit less privacy is a cheap price to pay for more physical security.

However, many of those governments, because they claim to be “liberal” and “democratic”, feel uneasy about this. After all, if rights are tradeable like this, if they depend on the circumstance and should be surrendered when the circumstances become more difficult, what is left of them? They become a luxury for good times, rather than a safeguard in bad times. (Another sign of this is the way in which the war on terror is eating away at other rights as well, e.g. the right not to be tortured; but let’s stick to the right to privacy here).

Because of this unease, governments claim that the right to privacy isn’t really being sacrificed. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about”. It’s only the terrorists whose right to privacy is being limited. But in the meantime

  • DNA databases are being established for almost entire populations
  • CCTV is omnipresent
  • “data mining” is used extensively (after all, how can you determine if someone is a terrorist if you haven’t first violated his or her right to privacy?)
  • etc.

I don’t mean to imply that rights such as the right to privacy are absolute or that there can never be a good reason to limit one right for the sake of another. On the contrary. But limiting rights can only be done when there is a “clear and present danger” for other rights or for the rights of others. A vague and everlasting “war on terror” provokes limits on rights when there’s no such danger. Limiting rights becomes the normal MO of governments keen to prevent such a danger from ever occurring. And that’s unacceptable. Obviously, terrorism is a danger, but governments can only limit rights in order to prevent it when the danger is clear and present, and imminent. A general and vague fear of terrorism will not do.

More on the war on terror. More on privacy.

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privacy, terror

Terrorism and Human Rights (7): Data Mining, Terrorism and Privacy

Data mining (also known as pattern recognition) is an anti-terrorist intelligence strategy. Data mining means bringing together different kinds of databases, linking them, and trying to identify suspicious patterns of individual behavior. The purpose is to prevent terrorist attacks. Suspicious behavior may indicate that such an attack is imminent, and data mining has been defended as the most important prevention tool.

If a Muslim chemistry graduate takes an ill-paid job at a farm-supplies store what does it signify? Is he just earning extra cash, or getting closer to a supply of potassium nitrate (used in fertilizer and explosives)? What if apparent strangers with Arabic names have wired him money? What if he has taken air flights with one of those men, with separate reservations and different seats, paid in cash? What if his credit-card records show purchases of gadgets such as timing devices? (source)

Intelligence services are routinely bringing together different data-bases such as

  • credit card and payment data
  • travel data, flight reservations, hotel reservations
  • census data such as race, religion, occupation
  • data on internet use, email and phone use
  • police information such as convictions, known associates, fines for illegal photography
  • CCTV data (e.g. from cameras situated close to extremist mosques)
  • etc.

When all these data bases are linked, the value of the information they contain increases significantly. When intelligence services learn that someone travels to Afghanistan or Pakistan, it may not ring a bell. And anyway, there are too many people travelling to these places. But if they filter on those people who also read extremist websites, visit extremist mosques, have extremists associates, travel in the plane as other suspicious persons, have suspicious payments etc., then they may be on to something.

However, data mining may lose some of its benefits to the extent that terrorists are aware that this is happening and fine-tune their behavior. They know that much of this data mining is, by necessity, automated in computer programs which assign a “suspicion value” to certain activities or combinations of activities (the data bases are too big to do it any other way). So they can lower their suspicion score by regularly visiting very non-Muslim websites such as porn sites, or call telephone numbers of brothels.

Data mining may lose it effectiveness and has also been criticized as an invasion of privacy and a criminalization of behavior that is perfectly legal even if sometimes somewhat strange. Normally, invasions of privacy such as phone-tapping require a prior suspicion. Data mining means spying on people without such as prior suspicion, because suspicion can only be established as a result of mining, not beforehand.

It means spying on people in two different ways:

  • The data bases used contain individual data that were not intended for use by intelligence services and that were often handed over by individuals on the assumption that the data would be treated confidentially.
  • When a suspicion is established on the basis of data mining, more traditional means of surveillance come into play (phone tapping, observation etc.), which also violate people’s right to privacy.

Of course, privacy is not an absolute value and different types of rights need to be balanced – in this case the right to privacy of some and the right to physical integrity and security of others. And an assessment has to be made of the priority of one right compared to another. But it seems to me that treating every citizen as a possible terrorist, and looking at his or her individual and private data as a matter of routine, is way over the top. I would like to see some information of the number of terrorist plots foiled by data mining.

But privacy is not the only victim. If someone is labeled “suspicious” as a result of data mining, he or she may end up on a “watch-list” and may find it difficult to travel or find a job in certain places deemed risky (hospitals, fertilizer producers, government agencies etc.).

(image source)
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