Protecting privacy in a world of digital communications
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Protecting privacy in a world of digital communications

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“New technologies will enable high levels of social control at a reasonable cost. Governments will be able to selectively censor topics and behaviours to allow information for economically productive activities to flow freely, while curbing political discussions that might damage the regime. China’s so-called Great Firewall provides an early demonstration of this kind of selective censorship.”

Censorship and privacy are key issues in today’s world of digital communications. The notion that people’s data are private is a legacy of the “sealed envelope” model of communication. Formerly, a letter sent by post contained information that only the recipient was supposed to see. In times of war, government censors could open a sealed envelope to read its contents arguing that national security might be at stake. Today, digital packets (unless encoded) are open to similar interception and abuse.

Worse is to come. In the same article from which the quote above is taken, How Artificial Intelligence Will Reshape the Global Order (Foreign Affairs. 10 July 2018), Nicholas Wright argues:

“As well as retroactively censoring speech, AI and big data will allow predictive control of potential dissenters. This will resemble Amazon or Google’s consumer targeting but will be much more effective, as authoritarian governments will be able to draw on data in ways that are not allowed in liberal democracies. Amazon and Google have access only to data from some accounts and devices; an AI designed for social control will draw data from the multiplicity of devices someone interacts with during their daily life. And even more important, authoritarian regimes will have no compunction about combining such data with information from tax returns, medical records, criminal records, sexual-health clinics, bank statements, genetic screenings, physical information (such as location, biometrics, and CCTV monitoring using facial recognition software), and information gleaned from family and friends.”

A commonly accepted understanding of communication rights says that people should have control over their personal information. Since there is an obvious link between privacy and the protection of other human rights, privacy helps guarantee other rights. For example, if personal data is wrongly shared with law enforcement agencies, a person may face far greater risks to life, liberty, and security.

Communication rights strengthen and guarantee the public voices and genuine participation of all people everywhere. They stress justice, equality, democratization, and diversity – because of the intrinsic value attached to human dignity, mutual respect, and shared understanding.

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