Privacy as the User’s Problem?

As Netopia reports in Jane Whyatt’s story “The Herod Clause”, open wifis have surfaced as a new threat to privacy and security online. By using open wifis, users reveal e-mail addresses, passwords, and, perhaps worst, their wifi history, making it possible to retrace their steps and thus monitor past movements. The irony of online privacy is that the internet is both a place of anonymity and perceived invisibility, while at the same time the perfect surveillance machine as recent debates on big data and Edward Snowden’s leaks have shown. But with smartphone and soon maybe wearable computers, the surveillance enters the physical space. Apps for sharing wifi-info, such as InstaWifi or Wifipass, may look like another generous piece of the “sharing economy”, but could in practice be a real Trojan horse.

Europol’s spokesperson in Whyatt’s story recommends the use of VPN-technology as privacy precaution. It is an ambiguous piece of advice. Is it reasonable that the individual user should bear the responsibility to solve this problem? Can users ever keep up with the advances of surveillance technology? And can it be done without turning into actual “tin foil hats” (to block out satellites and radio-waves)? Does a majority of users have required skills to master anti-surveillance technology? Or enough appetite to learn? So far, it seems most users prefer the comfort of ignorance or denial – “perhaps the haystack is so big my particular needle will not be found”. But with algorithms and big data technology, any needle can be identified, so it’s in deed a false sense of security. Perhaps users think they don’t have anything to hide, but that would be giving up privacy in exchange for free search and e-mail – we will live to regret it.

Rather, the question should be: what is the responsibility for those who commercially deploy these technologies to respect privacy? And if they don’t see privacy protection as part of the commercial offer, the solution may not be more technology, but more democracy. In that perspective, the EU:s legal action against some tech players is more than welcome.