In the digital age, we should not expect our online activities to remain private

Author: Kaja Molinksa


Has the expectation of privacy become outdated? Over half the world’s population uses social media [Ref: Datareportal] and there are now many official ‘track and trace’ apps to combat coronavirus infections [Ref: The Atlantic]. Many today declare they are worried about privacy, but continue to use services that hoover up their data, a contradiction termed the ‘privacy paradox’ [Ref: Guardian]. From the proliferation of connected devices (in 2020, 34 per cent of UK households had a smart speaker [Ref: Statista]), to taking advantage of the benefits of targeted advertising [Ref: Forbes], it seems that few consumers genuinely take their online privacy seriously. In fact, over 90 per cent of consumers agree to a website’s ‘terms and conditions’ without reading them [Ref: Business Insider]. One study suggested students would even choose free pizza over secure email addresses [Ref: Forbes]. 

However, from the Cambridge Analytica scandal [Ref: Guardian] to high-profile data breaches, such as in 2018 when over 300 million Marriot International guests had data including addresses and passport numbers exposed [Ref: TechAdvisor], we still profess to “loathe that our data is mined and scraped” [Ref: New York Times]. For many, privacy remains an indispensable right and safeguard against overbearing governments – such as in Belarus, where the privacy-focused app Telegram allows protestors to organise against the government [Ref: The Economist]. For others, such as governments attempting to track and locate infectious persons during the coronavirus pandemic, online privacy stands in the way of keeping us all safe [Ref: The Atlantic]. Where should the line be drawn?


How much do we care about online privacy?

For civil-liberties campaigner Shami Chakrabarti, privacy is “an important part of the human experience” both online and off, and should be protected as far as possible [Ref: British Library]. Despite such sentiments, John Naughton, a professor of the public understanding of technology, observes that the debate about online privacy is a fundamentally confused one – with users complaining about breaches of privacy by government, social media sites and corporations, whilst simultaneously surrendering all kinds of personal information on the web. He concludes by arguing that “when push comes to shove, their privacy isn’t as important to them as they say it is” [Ref: Guardian]. However, a study has shown that in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal the majority of UK consumers have “retracted data permissions, plan to share less data or review how companies use their personal information”, suggesting a growing awareness and preoccupation with issues of online privacy [Ref.Computer Weekly]. 

Some present the issue as one of choice: if you prioritise privacy “simply stop using free, ad-supported social networks altogether” [Ref: Independent]. But is it really that simple? In the first place, many rely on digital technologies for everything from staying in touch with relatives during a pandemic to ordering groceries [Ref: Independent]. Secondly, some argue that many people hardly understand the consequences of using such services, arguing that “you can’t expect users to know what is really happening with their data if it’s not clearly communicated” [Ref: Guardian]. Perhaps, in the words of Greg Satell: “Whilst we do value privacy, we value other things more” [Ref: Forbes].

State security in the digital age

“Privacy has never been an absolute right” declared Richard Hannigan, the previous head of the British intelligence and security organisation GCHQ defending state surveillance [Ref: Financial Times]. Hannigan was defending the 2014 Data Protection and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIP), which strengthened the security services’ ability to track and access private data [Ref:]. The passage of the bill crystallised a debate about the limits of online privacy. Advocates of state surveillance argue that radical terrorist groups, criminals gangs and paedophiles all regularly use social media to communicate and organize illegal activity, meaning that robust legislation is vital [Ref: BBC News] [Ref: Guardian]. Many, however, point out that existing legislation does not affect communications on platforms such as WhatsApp or Telegram, which use end-to-end encryption [Ref: Guardian]. For some, this means that they are becoming a safe space for terrorist channels [Ref: Wired], but others, such as the UN special rapporteur on privacy, argue this shows privacy restrictions as ineffective ‘gesture politics’ [Ref: ZDNet]. 

Most recently, the coronavirus pandemic has brought to the fore the so-called trade-off between safety and privacy, with the emergence of coronavirus-tracing apps which collect location data from their users [Ref: Guardian]. Some insist this is essential to save lives [Ref: Guardian], whilst others point out the dystopian consequences of handing expansive powers to governments [Ref: Guardian] or neighbours [Ref: New York Times]. Indeed, governments around the world suggested that overemphasis on privacy meant track and trace apps were less effective, leaving governments and health agencies unable to properly know and act on the available data [Ref: Guardian]. Many experts counter that strong privacy controls are crucial to public trust in, and the the success of, such apps [Ref: FT]

The rise of ‘surveillance capitalism’

It is sufficient to read a single privacy policy of a social platform to realise that companies now possess vast amounts of data about their users [Ref: Guardian]. Data breaches are a disturbingly common occurrence, and while the consequences of a leak of an email address alone may be entirely innocuous, “every breach increases the risk because different pieces of information come out” putting victims at risk of identity theft [Ref: Insurance Journal]. However, many argue that access to data is predominantly beneficial, both to consumers and business owners, as it delivers a personalised experience to the former while providing “cost-effective, targeted advertising” to the latter [Ref: Euronews]. When organisations possess information about their users, they can use this to alter the information they show their uses. Critics suggest this means that  users can access only “what platforms allow” [Ref: The New York Times]. Some go as far as asking whether it is “possible to have free and fair elections when social media allows for the mass dissemination of misleading information and the micro-targeting of propaganda?” [Ref: Guardian]. 

Targeting is used well beyond just advertising, such as creating scores that claim to predict our reliability as tenants [Ref: CoreLogic], safe-driving practices [Ref: FICO], and employability, using information such as the  subject’s address and even facial expressions [Ref: The Washington Post]. Thus the personal data collected across multiple platforms can in theory influence everything from where we live, how much we pay in insurance, and whether we get a promotion [Ref: The Washington Post]. For some, this can be a positive. The adoption of alternative credit scoring models which consider more data, such as mobile phone and property records in addition to the traditional mortgage, car loan, and credit card data, is intended to boost the creditworthiness of consumers with insufficient credit histories, who could not otherwise obtain a loan [Ref: New York Times]. Nonetheless, many worry about what Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff termed “surveillance capitalism”, whereby “human experience” is claimed by private companies “as free raw material for translation into behavioral data” which is then sold for profit and used, allegedly, to manipulate our thoughts and decisions. [Ref: New York Times]. 

Do we need an ‘online Magna Carta’?

In response to the revelations of widespread online surveillance by former US National Security Agency (NSA) operative Edward Snowden, the UN Human Rights Council stated that: “There is a universal recognition of the fundamental importance, and enduring relevance, of the right to privacy, and to ensure that it is safeguarded in law and in practice” [Ref: Human Rights Council]. However, questions remain about the measures through which privacy should be protected online. In 2014, the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling by the European Court of Justice (CJEU) set an initial precedent that means that individuals, companies and even governments can apply to internet search engines such as Google requesting that information about them be removed from search results [Ref: BBC News]. For critics this is worrying because the principle of the ruling indicates that “the balance between privacy and freedom of expression is tilting in the wrong direction” [Ref: Times]. Freedom of expression groups welcomed the 2019 CJEU judgement which established that Google did not have to apply the right to be forgotten globally and that links should be kept for information necessary for the right of freedom of information [Ref: BBC]. The degree of protection of online privacy has recently resurfaced in European politics with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming into force in 2018, which established data protection as a “fundamental right” [Ref: GDPR]. Some believe that the regulation is a “big, confusing mess” that “promises to change the internet but can’t explain how” [Ref: New York Times], while some consumers have welcomed the rights it affords them [the DMA UK]. 

Perhaps the disagreements rest on the absence of a common understanding of what privacy is what it entails. Privacy ‘rights’ have rarely attained the legal standing of the right to free speech [Ref: Wikipedia] or the right to a fair trial [Ref: Wikipedia]. Theorists have instead relied on the “right to be let alone”, a phrase coined in the 19th century in the context of tort law [Ref: New Yorker]. This has been invoked to encompass things as different as rights to abortion [Ref: Roe v. Wade] and “the right to not be compelled to listen to the radio on a public bus” [Ref: New Yorker]. 

But what does privacy mean today? Have we lost sight of the positive, empowering elements of privacy [Ref: BBC Radio 4]? As one commentator notes “the edifices of privacy that we once thought we understood are melting like ice in a heat wave” [Ref: Guardian]. Perhaps the content and scope of the right to privacy can be deduced from the benefits it is meant to convey: “People need the space to try alternate ways of living without risking arrest or social ostracization. People need to be able to read critiques of those norms without anyone’s knowledge, discuss them without their opinions being recorded, and write about their experiences without their names attached to their words.” [Ref: Wired]. Of course, as critics insist, excessive privacy protections and anonymity can have the effect of increasing unethical behaviour, a phenomenon termed the “online disinhibition effect” [Ref: The New York Times]. Perhaps, as the political philosopher Hannah Arendt argued, privacy is less a right than “the space in which we are free to think and experiment with our thoughts without the need to present them in the public sphere” [Ref: Spiked].

How, therefore, are we to balance privacy and secrecy in the digital age? Is privacy a relic from a previous era, or more important than ever in the context of a data-driven world?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Privacy is overrated. It’s time Big Tech made the positive case for harvesting our data
Shirish Agarwal, Euronews, 27 February 2020

In today’s homes, consumers are willing to sacrifice privacy for convenience
Sonia Rao, The Washington Post, 12 September 2018

Why too much privacy is bad for the economy
Andrew McStay, The Conversation, 8 November 2013

Where Anonymity Breeds Contempt
Julie Zhuo, The New York Times, 29 November 2010


‘Telegram revolution’: App helps drive Belarus protests
Daria Litvinova, The Washington Post, 21 August 2020

Surveillance is a fact of life, so make privacy a human right
The Economist, 13 December 2019

We’re all Just Starting to Realise the Power of Personal Data
Louise Matsakis, Wired, 28 December 2018

Surveillance Kills Freedom by Killing Experimentation
Bruce Schneier, Wired, 16 November 2018


Brave New World: the importance of thinking freely
Luke Gittos Spiked 13 July 2020

Would You Sacrifice Your Privacy to Get Out of Quarantine?
Mike Giglio The Atlantic 22 April 2020

How Coronavirus Is Eroding Privacy
Liza Lin Wall Street Journal 15 April 2020

You Are Now Remotely Controlled
Shoshana Zuboff The New York Times 24 January 2020

Why do we care so much about privacy?
Louis Menand New Yorker 11 June 2018


The history of secrecy
Tiffany Jenkins BBC Radio 4

Brave New World and the eradication of inner life
The boi charity Ideas Matter


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Drones, fever goggles, arrests: millions in Asia face ‘extreme’ Covid surveillance
Harriet Grant Guardian 1 October 2020

Coronavirus: Government to give 11,000 iPads to care homes so residents can speak to families
Peter Stubley Independent 27 September 2020

In South Korea, Covid-19 Comes With Another Risk: Online Bullies
Cloe Sang-Hun New York Times 19 September 2020

Telegram tries to blend security with usability
Schumpeter The Economist 4 August 2020

Data isn’t just being collected from your phone. It’s being used to score you.
Harvey Rosenfield and Laura Antonini The Washington Post 31 July 2020

Government admits breaking privacy law with NHS test and trace
Sarah Marsh and Alex Hern Guardian 20 July 2020

Share of individuals who have access to a smart speaker in their household in 2020, by country
S. O’Dea Statista 7 May 2020

France urges Apple and Google to ease privacy rules on contact tracing
Alex Hern Guardian 21 April 2020

How Telegram became a safe haven for pro-terror Nazis
Wil Bedingfield Wired 1 March 2020

A face-scanning algorithm increasingly decides whether you deserve the job
Drew Harwell The Washington Post 6 November 2019

Targeted ads are one of the world’s most destructive trends. Here’s why
Arwa Mahdawi Guardian 5 November 2019

Google wins landmark right to be forgotten case
Leo Kelion BBC News 24 September 2019

A Reality Check On Advertising Relevancy And Personalization
David Doty Forbes 13 August 2019

It’s Not Easy to Pin Identity Theft on a Specific Data Breach
Anick Jesdanun Insurance Journal 6 August 2019

A Brief History of How Your Privacy Was Stolen
Roger McNamee The New York Times 3 June 2019

You’re Not Alone When You’re On Google
Jennifer Senior The New York Times 17 May 2019

The privacy paradox: why do people keep using tech firms that abuse their data?
John Naughton Guardian 5 May 2019

The Biggest Data Breaches
TechAdvisor 16 April 2019

Half of UK consumers to exercise GDPR rights within a year
Warwick Ashford Computer Weekly 6 August 2018

Why do we care so much about privacy?
Louis Menand New Yorker 18 June 2018

Europe’s Data Protection Law Is a Big, Confusing Mess
Alison Cool The New York Times 15 May 2018

Are you ready? Here is all the data Facebook and Google have on you
Dylan Curran Guardian 30 March 2018

Why have we given up our privacy to Facebook and other sites so willingly?
Alex Hern Guardian 21 March 2018

Pizza over privacy? Stanford economist examines a paradox of the digital age
May Wong Stanford News 3 August 2017

You’re not alone, no one reads terms of service agreements
Caroline Cakebread Business Insider 15 November 2017

UN privacy watchdog says ‘little or no evidence’ that mass surveillance works
Zack Whittaker Zero Day 10 March 2017

Did Cambridge Analytica influence the Brexit vote and the US election?
Jamie Doward and Alice Gibbs Guardian 4 March 2017

Little Credit History? Lenders Are Taking a New Look at You
Ann Carrns The New York Times 24 February 2017

Privacy watchdog attacks snooper’s charter over encryption
Alex Hern Guardian 12 January 2016

Privacy in the digital age
Shami Chakrabarti British Library 28 January 2015

Theresa May: data law could have helped catch more paedophiles
Press Association Guardian 10 December 2014

Let’s Face It, We Don’t Really Care About Privacy
Greg Satell Forbes 1 December 2014

Why the internet has turned us into hypocrites
John Naughton Guardian 16 November 2014

GCHQ, terrorists, and the internet: What are the issues?
Jane Wakefield BBC News 4 November 2014

The web is a terrorist’s command-and-control network of choice
Robert Hannigan Financial Times 3 November 2014

Freedom to Search
The Times 5 July 2014

The right to privacy in the digital age
Report for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 30 June 2014

What is the ‘right to be forgotten’?
Dave Lee BBC News 13 May 2014

Relax, Facebook’s Photo Sync is an opt-in feature. If you’re worried about privacy, simply don’t use it
Alex Masters Independent 4 December 2012

The end of online privacy?
Charles Arthur Guardian 28 February 2012


GDPR: A consumer perspective
The Data and Marketing Association 2018

SafeRent Score

FICO Safe Driving Score

Roe v. Wade [1973]

Griswold v. Connecticut [1965]

Global Social Media Overview 2020

Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014
United Kingdom Government

General Data Protection Regulation 2018

European Convention on Human Rights 1953