Giving up the ghost: Is privacy just an illusion?

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few months, the public release of classified military and diplomatic information by Wikileaks has spurred widespread controversy and raised questions on transparency and confidentiality. Further, last month, the media reported that courts in the United States were increasingly granting access to private posts on Facebook in civil proceedings. These unrelated incidences, among others, are suggesting that the protection that had been accorded to matters deemed “private” is eroding…

As Internet prices have dropped and connectivity has improved, we have been spending increasing amounts of time online. Moreover, with the advent of social media (such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace) along with the multitude of online services that are available for our convenience, we are sharing more of our lives over the Internet.

With regard to many of the websites we frequent, we perceive them as controlled environments that are carefully managed and in which we have some degree of control. For example, we can limit the amount of information that is publicly available, to whom we connect, and whether our information is given to third party vendors. As a result, we often gloss over the Terms of Service and Privacy Policies many sites require us to accept as a condition of registration. More importantly, we feel safe enough to share with persons connected to us, all sorts of information about our lives and ourselves. However, as mundane as we believe this information might be, it is a highly sought after resource in our information-driven world.

Perhaps to illustrate, we can each begin to consider our digital footprint:

  • Email – Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo, local email servers, …
  • Social Media – Digg, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter, …
  • Shopping – Amazon, Target, Barnes & Noble, Apple Store, Victoria’s Secret, …
  • Travelling – Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Priceline, Wotif, …
  • Banking – Scotiabank, First Caribbean, RBTT, …
  • Other – Google Apps, Flickr, …

The above listing is meant to provide a snapshot of some of the online services and applications that we access regularly, and which in turn, to varying extents, store personal information about us. On most of those sites the data collected is used to enhance the user-experience, e.g. to tailor the products and services that are suggested to you. However, under the websites’ policies, customer data is also frequently shared with affiliated businesses to the primary website; with subcontractors hired to undertake back-office operations; and with “trusted third parties”. Additionally, many of the sites explicitly state that customer information will be disclosed to comply with legal requirements, and to protect their operations and the public at large. Further, if the business (or a part of it) is sold, customer information would most likely be released to the purchaser as part of that transaction.

Notwithstanding those standard situations where customer data is shared, some sites do sell that information to data miners and advertisers, and it is an especially lucrative source of revenue. Information that might be sold include:

  • shopping and buying habits
  • shopping history
  • hobbies and interests, as well as likes and dislikes
  • personal information, such as contact details.

Although websites collecting and analysing data on their users could be a useful and beneficial exercise, we as users are usually not aware of how that information is being manipulated and the extent to which we might be exposed. However, there is a school of thought that supports transparency. Specifically, if you have nothing to hide, and if you are prepared to use the Internet, which is inherently a public medium, then you have tacitly surrendered the right to control all of the information you have placed in that forum.

In most societies the right to privacy is still an inalienable right. However, the Internet is a network shared and operated worldwide. More importantly and with regard to the Caribbean, most of the data generated is not stored in the region, but is transferred and saved across several jurisdictions. As a result, the rights to privacy that might obtain in your country of residence might not be easily applied in the context of the Internet.

It is also important to highlight that most governments maintain the power to override any rights to privacy that citizens might possess, usually on the grounds of national security and to facilitate enforcement of the law. Moreover, you as a private citizen would most likely not be aware that you are under government surveillance and how the collected information will be used. Some recent and pertinent examples of how those powers are being used are outlined below.

  • In late 2010, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago released that over a five-year period, the local Security Intelligence Agency had been monitoring the phone calls and intercepting the messages and emails of public figures and private citizens. The main targets were politicians from all parties, media personalities, members of the judiciary, trade unionists, and prominent private citizens. The children of some of these persons were also targeted.
  • Through legislation, Jamaica plans to establish a Mandatory Registration of Subscriber Information (MRSI) framework. Through this mechanism, the local mobile phone companies will be required to provide data to government agencies upon request.
  • Finally, governments around the world request websites to provide information about users and to remove content from services, such as search engines. As an example, Google publishes a biannual Transparency Report in which it summarises the requests received from government agencies around the world. In the most recent report, January 2010 to June 2010, none of the English-speaking Caribbean governments were reported to have used that service, but they can of course avail themselves of it as and when desired.



  • I think privacy ended a long time ago, I just think most people are unaware of how little is actually private. I personally am concerned about the lack of legislation in the Caribbean, to regulates\ access to information by other persons and most importantly government. The fact is “ICT literacy” if you know what I mean is not that great in the region and both governements and con artists are behind the times. They will catch up and when they do….. will there be legislation?

  • Sometimes when what we already know is projected in front of us, the stark reality takes a mind-boggling dimension.

    In any event, there is no way we will run away from this. So long as we continue to shift what were brick-and-mortar day-to-day activities to the digital world, so long will our privacy be a non-privacy.

Comments are closed.