The Role of Privacy in the Digital Age

As technology at the citizen level is expanding and developing rapidly, a lack of regulation is plaguing the privacy of those citizens. Citizens are becoming more dependent on technology for communication in all forms. The digitalization of private conversations, messages, or purchases presents the possibility of these private communications being accessed by third-party individuals increases.

Digital privacy issues span across all uses of technology including information storage and social media. The specific usage of social media presents concerns over the privacy of communicated information. The information that citizens store digitally has been accessed by organizations such as the National Security Agency in the United States (Ball 2013) and media corporations such as Facebook (Granville 2018).

Although it may seem that the issue of digital privacy only pertains to developed countries with more access to technology, this assumption is false. The issue of digital privacy expands to all countries. In developing countries, technology is being increasingly integrated into society. In these developing countries, technology, especially superior technology, is being distributed unequally (Hamann 2018). This could lead to an aristocratic society with some receiving technology with full privacy capabilities and others with less than private servers.
Currently, there is a lack of global consensus on the issue of digital privacy. In 2016, the technology company Apple was involved in a legal battle with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States (Lee 2016). Apple sides with a citizen’s right to digital privacy and refuses to unencrypt or unlock users’ iPhones for anyone, including the FBI (Soghoian 2016). In fact, the information stored on iPhones and the text messages sent from iPhone to iPhone are encrypted by default by Apple to protect their users’ digital privacy (Soghoian 2016). The FBI, however, argues that it may be necessary to infringe on privacy rights to uphold national security (Lee 2016). Because Apple encrypts all of this data, the FBI is unable to fulfill their objective of improving national security. This is just one example of a lack of consensus on the role of privacy in the digital age.
Some countries restrict certain media access, such as China requiring citizens to register all media usage with their full legal name (Choudhury 2017) or banning citizens from using social media (Tam 2016). China even sold a surveillance system used to spy on mobile and internet communications to Iran (Stecklow 2012). These restrictions bring the issue of whether or not governments should prevent certain behaviors of citizens that are carried out on digital platforms.
Digital capabilities such as surveillance cameras are also infringing on citizens’ privacy. China uses facial recognition software to track its citizens activity including purchases, travel, and potential crime such as jaywalking (Mozur 2018). A company called Wen Yangli in China has developed facial recognition software to allow residents of a residential building to use their face as a key to get around the building (Mozur 2018). However, the Chinese government has access to this software and thus has millions of images of its citizens that it can use to track an individual (Mozur 2018). China also uses this technology to create virtual maps of activity and records. Whether or not China’s actions infringe on the privacy of its citizens depends upon the view of a public versus private life.

Additionally, countries have also been accused of infringing on the digital privacy of other countries. The United States tracked the phones of other world leaders such as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Ball 2013). The Russian Federation hacked the election system of the United States in 2016 (New York Times 2018), as well as many civilian internet routers among many other things in 2018 (Fox-Brewster 2018). And China has been accused of spying on the African Union (Geller 2018).

Those wanting more access to private digital information are not exclusive to government agencies or media corporations. Individual citizens or independent groups known as hackers also abuse digital privacy. Hackers seek to access the private computers or accounts of digital users in order to gain some information or profit. Frequently, retail chains are hacked for stored credit card information (Wallace 2013).

There are many issues surrounding the idea of the role of privacy in the digital age. This issue spans from government agencies to small hackers. The task of this body is to consider this issue in the international community in order to reach a resolution about what can be done. Ideally, you will create a new treaty to protect digital privacy and lay out what governments can and cannot do in this realm.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. Does your country believe the right to privacy is a human right?
  2. Does your country have any particular policies that indicate whether states should be allowed to collect information from citizens’ use of technology?
  3. Does your country have any particular policies that indicate whether internet media organizations have the right to collect information from their users? (i.e. Facebook)
  4. Are there any particular steps your country has taken that the United Nations should consider adopting?
  5. Should international bodies interfere when countries infringe on the digital privacy of other countries?