Aristotle may have been one of the first to consider the distinction between our private lives and our public ones, but for the longest time it was not a real thing.
Privacy laws - and the principles that underpin it - are quite new and, just as we are settling into taking it for granted, we are rapidly losing it again, unless we are all a lot more careful.
There are surprisingly many forms of privacy, but for this piece we will consider the implications for 6 areas.
Your privacy is protected in South Africa by the Constitution which states: “Everyone has the right to privacy, which includes the right not to have their person or home searched; their property searched; their possessions seized; the privacy of their communications infringed.”
Facebook is the world's largest photo album and is filled with proud parents' pictures of their beautiful children to remember and share with friends and family.
There are strict requirements that must be met before publicly posting a picture of a child. The most important is the parent's consent, but the greatest threat to a child’s privacy may be their own parents. It is only a question of time before a child that has had her entire life posted on Facebook challenges her parents' right to post about her.
A dubious case recently from Austria reports an 18-year-old that is challenging her parents to remove embarrassing pictures of her as a child. It may prove to be a story too good to be true, but with 1.7 billion users, the odds of a child seeking a legal remedy to claim the pictures posted of themselves before they were able to claim their rights is a certainty, if it has not happened already.
Couples would like to believe they could trust each other with everything, in fact, if they didn’t they may be unhappy. Not being able to keep some things private may impact on mental health, so while actually keeping things private may not be necessary, the ability to do so does seem to be.
Every transaction or any interaction with a business is most likely being recorded and analysed to determine what or how a company may get you to make a purchase or recommend them to friends who might. You may or may not be aware of the level of analysis, but in time the sophistication of purchase records will create a very full picture of you and even small purchases may share behaviour and intentions you believed were private.
That is not to say companies are the bad guys - they may be as vulnerable to having their privacy compromised through hacks and espionage. Competition might tempt others to use the relatively easier options new technology affords to gain access.
The introduction of the Protection of Private Information (POPI) Act seeks to align South Africa's data protection laws with international best practice. It covers both the business, their customers and their staff. It has been a long time coming and, at best, will still take more than a year before being enacted, but the most recent development has been the submission for the board that oversee it.
It is likely to be chaired by former IEC Chair Pansy Thlakula. Thlakula stepped down from her IEC role following a Public Protector report that found irregularities with procurement that led to a recommendation by the Electoral Court for a finding of misconduct and removal by Parliament.
The institution charged with protecting not just our privacy but our safety could also be the most likely to compromise it. Along with laws to protect us are laws that grant the State the power to compromise our privacy under certain conditions. Thankfully those are currently very specific, and in the public interest, but as they are for the most part covert, without sufficient safeguards, they could be compromised. The State has access, and the ability, to use some of the best technology to track our every move.
The intention is not to focus on the technology, as it is only an enabler, unless we reflect on the true value of privacy we will allow it to be eroded to the point we effectively no longer have it.
We are a long way from there, but certain cases have began to highlight some of the scenario’s that justify our vigilance.
An illustration of the false sense of privacy social media can provide.
This is a catch all type of privacy breach typically occurring after a relationship ends with one party deciding to share private information or photographs of a former partner. They need not be naked pictures, but often are.
Laws that are being considered, and almost guaranteed to be enacted, may help punish those that transgress, but it is little comfort for those that have had to contend with such intimate pictures being shared publicly.
A second form, which is related the first, but does not need to be posted by someone with personal relationship with the person. It involves the sharing of information about a behaviour publically that would bring shame and embarrassment to the person it is directed at. A father who recorded a video of his daughter having her hair cut off, did so to remind her about what she had done. Someone got hold of the video and shared it publicly resulting in the young girl taking her life.
It could also take the form of someone recording the actions of another secretly only to post it publicly to criticise or lampoon their behaviour. Even if only considered a joke it may have long lasting effects on the person concerned if they were not able to consent to it being posted in the first place.
Some of the images posted for one reason or another become so popular as to represent a specific incident, emotion or event. A child caught with a unique facial expression or pose are often turned into a meme. For many of the children they may be a simple footnote in their lives, and might even bring some fame and fortune, but there is no guarantee and it may prove to simply be a long lasting and unwanted intrusion into their personal lives. A 5-year-old at the moment is very popular thanks to his uncle's social media skills. Gavin may be oblivious to the widespread attention now, but when older he may not like that he was used in this way.
The right to be forgotten
The web has been created to have an almost unlimited capacity for storing information and companies like Google make it easy to find. An incident that while relevant or even in the public interest at the time will remain online like a ghost of past. A French court has ruled that information indexed may be requested to be removed after a period of time in what has become know as the right to be forgotten.
A recent ruling in Italy made a similar principle apply to a news story. Not allowing a full record of someone’s past to be recorded and accessed in the public interest may be concerning. But the intention is not to forget significant news stories, but rather those that no longer have relevance while still potentially being harmful to the person concerned.
This has a significant impact when a person is being assessed for suitability for new job with a growing majority of recruiters using an online search to add to their background check on a person.
There is a final note of what can be a damaging compromise of your reputation by not considering your privacy in that so many believe the content they share online is restricted or private on social media. Irrespective of the platform; anything posted online can be compromised to become public or simply shared. An angry post is the most common form of regretted content which may come back to embarrass if not result in serious consequences to your reputation.
If you have never Googled yourself, do it while not logged in to Google search to see what others will see about you (remember to use quotations to make sure it is you that display results for). Note the pictures and news sections to see if it may cause confusion or raise issues you need to address.
If there are only two things to take from this it is that privacy is easy to lose and hard to restore. When posting online ask if the post would be suitable if displayed on a giant billboard or broadcast. If the answer is 'no', then do not post it.