The Illusion of Privacy in the Information Age

The house always has the advantage in a game of poker. But what if this advantage is taken to the extreme and then left unchecked by a high authority? The ‘Leak of the Century’ otherwise known as the Panama Papers has exposed a gaggle of influential elites caught up in a secretive process of corruption. Ranging from the late father of the UK Prime Minister, to the now-resigned Prime Minister of Ukraine, to the family of China’s current president Xi Jinping, the reported scope of the leak is extensive. Those involved in the massive 11.5 million-file exposé, covering nearly 40 years of shady off shore holdings, come from all parts of the globe. Mossack Fonseca, the Panama-based law firm at the heart of the leak, has notably distanced itself from all potentially illicit companies managed by their clients. While the leak triggers vital concerns and demands thorough the probing of public figures involved, a broader issue is raised. What is the role of privacy in a time when personal information is widely shared yet poorly guarded? The Panama Papers, taken in relation to past information breaches like Edward Snowden’s reveal of the NSA’s operations in 2013, pose a new conundrum to the complex role of privacy in today’s globalized age. Before, the problem came down to weighing the rights of privacy with the (supposed) benefits of greater security through mass data collection. Now the dialogue has shifted towards the privacy of elites and their poorly scrutinized and clandestine money flows.

Image courtesy of G4ll4is ©2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of G4ll4is ©2013, some rights reserved.

On one level, privacy is compared as a binary against the security of the state. As the argument goes, to protect against international terrorist organizations and other criminal factions, states are required to collect and scan aggregated forms of personal data from citizens. Therefore, the framework for viewing privacy used by leaders such as US President Barack Obama pits the safety the state against the individual’s right to privacy. This ‘contest’ is misguided because it overstates the extent of privacy in the digital age and assumes grand-scale data collection is effective.

As Eric Sterner, a fellow at the George C. Marshall Institute, phrased it ‘Privacy died with the information age. As cyber technologies pervaded our daily lives we surrendered privacy, usually voluntarily’ Privacy as a right is internationally upheld in the UN ‘Declaration of Human Rights’ as well as in various national constitutions. Despite wide-ranging recognition, privacy remains difficult to define. At its root, privacy relates to the autonomous control of personal information and property. When Snowden leaked the cliometric methods of the NSA in 2013, it resulted in a re-questioning of individual privacy and its relation to state security. Little do many people explicitly recognize, but personal information is readily given away through social media sites and other Internet applications. Instead of collecting data to identify potential terrorists, companies like Facebook use voluntarily submitted personal data to provide targeted advertisements and make a profit.

Privacy, in a way, is not mainly concerned with the safety of personal data but the impression that one’s secrets are safe. Because of this, widespread sharing of personal information on Facebook, twitter, etc. is deemed acceptable because it does not appear to be a threat to privacy. The NSA leak inflamed public opinion around privacy because it threatened the social construct of personal security. As Sterner further argues, ‘Our behavior changed but our expectations did not.’ Privacy is not an inalienable right but an illusion of security in the speedy information age. The task is then to effectively manage these “expectations” of privacy instead of securing it in an ultimate sense.

While privacy is mainly a social feeling of security, its role in ‘protecting’ a nation should not be assumed. Using aggregates of private citizen’s phone records, emails and other personal information is largely ineffective at countering terrorist activities. Does profiling hundreds of millions of ‘good guys’ help unmask the few dozen ‘bad guys’ in their midst? Instead of trying to find the ‘terrorist needle in the public haystack’, authorities should focus on more tried and true criminal investigation methods that rely on real human intelligence instead of vast amounts of aggregated data. Otherwise, the debate between security and privacy will continue and result in even further irrelevant clash. The people can have their illusionary feeling of privacy and be safe from terrorists too.

Privacy is not a neat and tidy concept, as the Panama Papers have made explicitly clear. The Snowden leaks fall into the realm of debate around privacy, security, and the threat of non-state actors to legitimate states. The Panama Papers offers a new angle on the issue by introducing two new points of consideration. Firstly, there is a need to sacrifice privacy in order to curtail corruption from within as opposed to countering external threats. And secondly, the need for tighter privacy controls on those in power because of the greater potential for damage they can cause to the system as a whole.

The extent of the Panama papers is novel and the moniker ‘Leak of the Century’ is well deserved. Almost 150 public figures are affected by the leak, purportedly including the president of Argentina and close friends of Vladimir Putin, among others. It should be noted that not all of Mossack Fonseca’s work is illicit. On the contrary many legitimate business ventures, like cross-border joint ventures and personal banking accounts of citizens from unstable states, are considered entitled to use offshore accounts under international law. However, shady activities like anonymous shell companies and corruption-funded personal accounts proliferate throughout Mossack Fonseca’s client activities.

Corruption is an impediment for economic growth and makes the world less equal. When privileged politicians or elites steal from government funds, less money can be allocated towards beneficial investments like infrastructure, education, or healthcare. Cronyism through ‘sweet heart’ contracts also defrauds taxpayers and deters investment from honest firms. Corruption poses an economic threat to growth and therefore claims a different prerogative to limit privacy than other security-based leaks have in the past.

Furthermore, the two subjects are remarkably different. Whereas the NSA analyzed data from ordinary citizens with limited institutional power, the Mossack Fonseca case involves political officials that are exponentially more powerful. The discussion of privacy therefore must be tailored to the subject in particular. Because heads of states and other officials possess such disproportionate institutional power, the effects of their potential slip into corruption are far more severe. With this in mind, it is imperative to limit the governing elite’s right to privacy in a move towards precaution and damage mitigation. The economic success of the whole system is worth more than the privacy of those in power.

Privacy is not black and white, but a shade of grey. It triggers romantic notions of universal rights and is increasingly involved in debates as the world globalizes and accepts the new rules of the information age. While true privacy is an illusion, the need for a feeling of personal security is growing in importance. Privacy issues should not be considered in strictly in terms of security or economic viability but through a more personal approach. Understanding the emotional drives behind privacy will be pivotal for public relations and managing the reveal of new leaks to come.