27 Apr 2023

Do Online Data Practices Breach Our Human Right to Privacy?

According to Ben van der Merwe, data journalist, there is something more fundamental at stake than what personalised online advertisements we’re attracting.

Ben van der Merwe, data journalist for Sky News, is concerned. With a furrowed brow he explains he worries we are on the verge of letting a genie out a bottle… to which it will never be able to return.

“For centuries we’ve taken for granted the fact that a person might have a public life and a private life – and the private life is where they’re able to experiment and try out new things and not worry about what other people think” he explains.

The way organisations gather data about us all online, he says, is in danger of permanently eroding that right to privacy.

“Today, the fact that all this data is being collected and connected, and that everything you put on social media is up there forever means we’re in real danger of losing that distinction”, he explains. And it doesn’t end there.

“We’re in danger of losing it permanently if we don’t fix the fundamental architecture of the internet which is right now based on gathering that information and selling it on”, he adds, sadly.

Sound dramatic? Surely all this information is pretty useless? Yes, we might see a pop-up ad for the new blender we searched for yesterday evening – but that hardly spells out the demise of humanity? 

The issue, van der Merwe argues, is the number of organisations that can now keep tabs on us without our knowledge. And the combined power of all the siloes of data we leave around the internet on our travels – from our likes and dislikes, to the state of our health and finances – is not only enormous but widely available to anyone with the knowledge or cash to look for it.

“It’s the fundamental importance of privacy that’s at stake. You should be able to live your life without constant scrutiny from the government, by companies, by potential employers, by immigration agencies. We’re at real risk of losing that important part of human life”.

Van der Merwe believes a rebalance of power is needed.

“At the moment, individuals have almost no data privacy. Whereas governments and corporations have a huge amount of data privacy. There are a lot of things they’re able to just not disclose or to refuse to disclose under the Freedom of Information Act”.

This is not – he points out – something that consumers are able to do.

“The balance should be the other way around. People who the public have a legitimate interest in scrutinising – business and government – should be the ones who are open. But people who are just going about their daily lives – that data should not be accessible to just anyone. No citizen has a legitimate reason to be scrutinising their neighbour, or their partner”

“I don’t think we need to go to extremes and ban the sharing of data online. But there need to be better restrictions on how that data is used”, he concludes.