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How can our society preserve its privacy?

11 February 2020

In a recent issue of the Volkskrant, former marine Ingo Piepers warns that ‘if we’re not careful, the new order will not be democratic but closer to the Chinese model.’ In China, cameras are used for large-scale surveillance in public spaces. The impact of mass surveillance on privacy is the focus of the research of philosopher Titus Stahl. He believes that it does not only affect the privacy of individuals but also of society as a whole.

Text: Merel Weijer, Communication UG

Titus Stahl, photo by Elmer Spaargaren
Titus Stahl, photo by Elmer Spaargaren

Spied on in the bathroom

Stahl discovered that although much is written about the violation of individual privacy, this is not the public’s greatest concern. People are not just worried about being spied on in the bathroom or being monitored by the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD). They are also concerned about the threat that mass surveillance poses for society as a whole. But in what way can the privacy of a society be violated? According to Stahl, this is a question that philosophers have written little about thus far.

Steering the masses via technology

One of the phenomena that Stahl studies is how mass surveillance ushers in new forms of power. Data ‘mining’ and the steering and predicting of people’s behaviour are on the rise. What is happening now in China is by no means a far-off scenario. Eighteen countries already make use of intelligent surveillance systems, thereby taking public surveillance to a whole new level.

Influencing behaviour is also a form of power

We usually associate the notion of power with someone telling us what we may or may not do. But the ability to influence people’s behaviour is also a form of power. Think of celebrities being constantly followed by paparazzi. They cannot even go out to buy milk without running the risk of being photographed. Knowing that you are under constant watch changes how you behave in public – and this is a violation of personal freedom and an exercise of power. It is not so much that you’re afraid of doing something wrong or getting arrested but that you behave differently when you know that you’re constantly under watch.

Strategic behaviour

Intimate relationships require privacy; everybody knows that. But what about privacy in a democracy? ‘That’s a more complicated matter,’ says Stahl. He takes his time to answer. ‘Take demonstrations. You want to be visible because you’re trying to make a point. It doesn’t make any sense to demonstrate in secret. But you don’t want these expressions of your opinions to be recorded as evidence of who you are as an individual. And you want to keep control of any information stored about you. If you lose this control, you will behave differently in public. In a democracy, it’s crucial that people feel free and don’t strategically adjust their behaviour because they’re constantly aware of being watched.’

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Lost innocence

Stahl believes that it is a philosopher’s responsibility to help people to think about the opportunities and consequences of new technologies. It is easy to overlook the ethical aspects of the use of new technologies. Personally, Stahl has lost some of his innocence when it comes to privacy. He has covered up his webcam with tape, even though he wonders whether it makes any difference. Still, when you spend so much time studying this topic, you automatically become more cautious. He is aware that there is little that we can do as individuals. ‘I guess you could choose not to use the internet or to have a smartphone, but it has become basically impossible to do without.’

Responsibility of the government

The point is, Stahl says, that people should be able to use these technologies without having to worry about privacy. This is an issue that the government and corporate sector need to address. The government in particular should take responsibility for protecting its citizens. ‘As a society, we need to think hard about where our boundaries lie. Often, we start out by using a technology, and only later begin to think about its boundaries. It would be better to refrain from using it until we’ve studied it thoroughly.’ In a democracy, citizens must ultimately decide which freedoms are important and which can be relinquished for a greater good, like safety. Stahl hopes that his research will contribute to a clear vision on how to preserve the privacy of a society. A vision that will ensure that our society continues to grow as a democracy.

Last modified:13 February 2020 2.12 p.m.
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