Thoughts on privacy

Tuesday, Jul 30, 2013| Tags:

There is currently a huge public discussion going on about privacy, what it means in the Internet age, is it important or an outdated concept? Are there exceptions allowed? Does the government have special rights to see private documents and communication of the people? Does the government have the right to keep information about what it is doing private or should the government be 100% transparent? Is security more important than privacy?

In the good old days, and I mean 20 years ago, we had very clear regulations and laws about what the government and the police were allowed to do and in what way. I talk mainly about Germany here but I believe this is true for most democratic countries. The content of letters is protected by a special law in Germany called “Briefgeheimnis”. The post office and the police are not allowed to open letters unless there is a strong suspicion that the sender or receiver is a criminal and the letter contains some important evidence. Opening and reading a letter also requires approval from an independent judge. The same is true for telephone calls. It is possible to wiretap it but only in limited cases and after a judge’s approval.  A house search to look at private documents is even more difficult and is not possible even with very strong evidence and after a major crime.

There is a strong protection of the privacy in the offline world.

In the online world of the internet accessing private data is very easy from a technology standpoint. You don’t need a police force to break down your door. You just flip a bit on a server and suddenly someone has full access to all the personal communications and documents of a person.

Some people think that violating the privacy of people is not a problem in the digital world because it is so much cheaper and somehow ‘natural’. It seems to be so easy and built into the technology that all data flows freely without borders and rules.

There is a movement called ‘post privacy’. Some people think that in a post-privacy world everybody loses control over their personal data anyway so we should just live with it and make the best out of it. Think about all the bank robbers we can catch if everyone has access to all phone calls, personal computers and emails. Privacy is a concept of the past and the digital world and the concept of privacy is incompatible by nature.

We don’t control our data anyway. So get over it and stop caring.

A live stream of me sitting on the toilet? A webcam in my bedroom? All my phone calls and all my 1×1 conversations are recorded, public, indexed with voice recognition and searchable? Maybe this is the future? I don’t know. Currently I can’t imagine a world like that and I don’t like the idea for sure. Do you close the door if you sit on a public toilet? If yes, than you agree with me that we all have the need for privacy.

I think the right of privacy is something that has its roots deep in human nature. It’s part of the International Bill of Human Rights of the United Nations and part of the constitution of most democratic countries in the world. Some politicians say that security is more important than privacy. So it is O.K. to violate the privacy of all people because this is needed to fight terrorism.

This is a difficult statement for several reasons. First of all there is not a direct connection between surveillance and security. So a society with total surveillance is not necessarily safe. And a society with strong privacy laws is not necessarily insecure. Examples of countries with strong surveillance are East Germany, Nazi Germany, Cuba or Iran. Examples of countries with low surveillance but still low crime rates and no terrorism are the Scandinavian countries or Spain. Another problem is that surveillance might help the police catch a bank robber but a suicide bomber doesn’t care if you have a video of the terrorist act.

Another fundamental issue with surveillance of people is that the secret services who do the surveillance live basically in the shadow and are not democratically controlled. This makes sense because who would vote for a government that spies on the own people? There must be a reason why secret services are secret and I bet it has something to do with a special interpretation of some laws.

If I would plan a criminal act than I would encrypt my communication and data of course. Only stupid terrorists wouldn’t use strong cryptography or steganography for their communication. So you only hit the “normal” people or the stupid criminals with massive surveillance of everybody.

Another problem is that people behave differently if they know that someone is watching them. This is described in a good way here. ( So massive surveillance changes the society fundamentally.

Massive surveillance of the people by the society also raises serious democratic concerns. One of the most basic democratic principals is that people vote and control the government based on the actions the politicians are doing and how well they represent the will of the people. This principalv doesn’t work anymore if you have a society with secret laws, secret courts, secret court rulings and secret government organizations in general.

I’m using services like Facebook, Google, and others that are known for violating my rights for privacy. Why do I do that? Isn’t this strange for someone who is concerned about privacy rights? I thought about this a lot. Why I was sort of OK with these services in the past? The reason is probably that I only have personal information on these websites that I consider public anyway. Because of that I basically disabled the privacy settings completely and everything about me on this sites is completely public. I don’t trust them to protect my private data like email, documents, address book and so on. Because of that I’m running my own mail server  forever and my ownCloud of course. This works for me but could be a different decision for everyone else.

So the conclusion here is that it is all my choice what I expose to the public and what not.

In Germany we had a ruling of the Bundesverfassungsgericht in the 80s which is the highest court about a principal called “Informationelle Selbstbestimmung“. The english translation could be “informational self-determination”. It means that it is the right of every person to decide what information is private and what is exposed to the public. It defines the rights of every person to control their own data and the privacy. Very similar to the user data manifesto from me. (

But has the government the right to override my choice?

I think the government has the right to restrict my personal freedoms and rights if it is important for the well being of the general public. So the state has the right to arrest criminals for example. But has the state the right to violate my personal privacy and to spy on my personal communication without any evidence? To practice complete surveillance on one person? Absolutely not!

Am I a criminal or terrorist or do I have something to hide from the government?

Do I still have the right to keep my privacy and do want to keep things to myself?
Hell, YES


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