Information technologies both extend and diminish personal control over the boundaries of the private. They extend privacy because they offer new means to set personal boundaries, to alter and project identity, and to participate and associate in the public sphere. Mobile phones and cameras, internet commerce, and social websites all harness and organise data to these ends. Data is likewise gathered in health databases to extend lifespan and manage disease, to monitor and enforce personal security, and so on. All these innovations can bolster the capacity of individuals to act autonomously.

On the other hand, technological advance challenges personal autonomy, traditionally understood. Private individuals neither manage nor own the technologies they increasingly depend upon. Personal privacy is (or is experienced as) threatened in four ways. First, the architecture of data and communications systems categorizes individuals and their attributes in novel and predetermined ways, for functional purposes that refashion personal profiles along terms created and administered by third parties. Second, the systems are now so advanced and complex that modern users do not and cannot expect to comprehend their functioning and adjustment, the amount and kind of data collected, who has access to it, and how access and usage is governed, if at all. Third, the IT revolution has been accompanied by a transfer of the management of public infrastructures into private hands. Whereas individuals previously entrusted the policing of their private spheres to public actors (the police, post and telecommunications services, public health services and so on), albeit guardedly, today it is not clear whether individuals expect the private sector to defend the security of their personal information from the state, or, conversely, expect the state to protect them from private abuses. Fourth, ordinary safeguards of the kind traditionally used to monitor governments tend to fail in a world where data flows barely recognise national jurisdictions.

Information-gathering technologies, privacy and human rights

 [Research project of the ICHRP in Geneva]


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