What Data Privacy Day should really be about

By Nicola Ward

27th January 2017

It’s ironic to think that today marks the 11th anniversary of Data Privacy Day, given the revelations of recent weeks. Whilst the internet has been awash with token articles advising how people can better manage their privacy online, it was only a week ago we learnt that one of the UK’s top universities has its students’ emails under surveillance.

Kings College London found itself in the spotlight last week after newspapers reported its email login page stated those using the system “expressly consented” to their correspondence being monitored and recorded. According to KCL, this indiscriminate snooping simply forms a statutory duty under the Government’s anti-terror strategy, Prevent.

Pretty reasonable some might think. Shouldn’t students be willing to relinquish some online privacy in the name of national security? After all, what’s a little bit of scrutiny if you have nothing to hide?

Admittedly, I would have felt this way too until recently.

I came across an article the other day authored by Wall Street Journal columnist, Peggy Noonan, written in the wake of the Edward Snowden leak in 2013. In the article, Noonan describes privacy as fundamentally connected to personhood – it’s the space that allows us to think, feel and express ourselves without fear of judgement. Without this, we become limited by concerns that we may be misunderstood or misinterpreted. The inevitable end of surveillance, Noonan claims, is self-censorship.

In a digital context, it’s not far-fetched to assume that surveillance of a person’s online activity could have a chilling effect on what information that person accesses. The ramifications of this within an educational environment are obvious but implemented more widely could seriously prevent the development of informed citizens within our society.

It’s important to remember that privacy is a human right like any other, regardless of whether it’s experienced in the real or digital world. It should not be downplayed or devalued in light of any other factor, especially the threat of terrorism.

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that there is no hard evidence to suggest spying on public records in any way protects us from terrorism. In fact, an analysis of terrorism charges in the US found that mass domestic surveillance “had no discernible impact” on preventing terrorist acts, with the majority of threats over the last decade detected by regular old intelligence and routine law enforcement methods. I would even go as far as suggesting that dealing with an endless torrent of irrelevant personal data is counter-productive to any anti-terror efforts.

Lest we forget, there is a price to pay for giving up our privacy for a false sense of security. It’s a slippery slope if we pass laws based on fear rather than reason. As such, Data Privacy Day should not just be an annual moment for organisations to offer their two-pence on how to protect personal information online. It should be a day to remember the reasons why data privacy is important and why we should never give up fighting to protect it.