Aral Balkan

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Privacy is not a science, it is a human right

A doctored image of a wolf in sheep’s clothing amid a group of sheep.

Given the levels of institutional corruption in academia and in the regulatory bodies and advocacy institutions that should be protecting our privacy, very few things shock me these days. So hats off to Bart van der Sloot for managing the impossible and finding a new low by framing institutional corruption as scientific neutrality in his article Dubbele petten in de privacywetenschap.

The gist of Mr. van der Sloot’s argument can be summarised with this doozy of a quote from his article1:

Should privacy science be pro-privacy, or is it an undermining of the neutrality of privacy science? If privacy science should be neutral, why is there so much commotion about the sponsorship by commercial parties like Google, Facebook and Palantir and are there few words wasted on sponsorship by activist civil rights organizations such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPiC), Privacy First and Bits of Freedom, which are outspoken pro-privacy? Does this not indicate that the criticism of sponsorship by commercial parties comes from persons who are not themselves neutral and objective, but actually pursue a pro-privacy agenda?

Where does one begin to dissect such a juicy turd?

“Privacy science” is not a thing

First off, let’s get this straight: privacy is not a science, it is a human right. There is no such thing as “privacy science”. There never was. There never will be. It’s not a science any more than human rights is a science. I can see what you’re trying to do, Mr. van der Sloot, and it’s duplicitous as all hell.

Let me tell you why privacy is not a science: because there is no scientific reason for us to have privacy any more than there is a scientific reason why we should not be slaves. Mr. van der Sloot purposefully conflates ethics, which asks “what is good?” and “how should we live?” with evolutionary biology, and perhaps sociology, which study the way things are and how they came to be the way they are and maybe even extrapolate to how they might be in the future given a certain set of constraints. The latter do not make value judgements. The former is all about value judgements. To the extent that studies in the latter follow the scientific method, we call them sciences. The former is not science, it is philosophy.

It is science that tells us how a projectile can be propelled from a hand-held device at such velocity as to cause terminal damage to another human being and exactly how it causes that damage. It is ethics that tells us we should not shoot people. Only people interested in providing some sort of pseudoscientific justification for their desire to shoot people conflate the two.

If you need Mr. van der Sloot to make my case himself, this next snippet of utter depravity should do the trick:

…the question is whether this does not make the image of the privacy scientist too one-sided and whether the name of the science is not being used or abused to take a personal standpoint. An example is the petition from January 2014 entitled ‘Academics against mass surveillance’, following the Snowden disclosures, in which it seems unequivocally suggested that mass surveillance is unlawful and unethical.

But are these statements sufficiently scientifically substantiated, or are they rather one-sided, emotional views? From a legal point of view, the assessment of these kinds of programmes is not so simple, which also applies, for example, to an ethical evaluation.

Thus, the name (‘Academics against mass surveillance’) of science is used to add lustre to a personal view, so the scientists who refrain from signing such petitions believe. They also ask the question whether ‘right-wing’ scientists should then start their own petition: Other Academics for Mass Surveillance. Moreover, in the area of privacy, you can continue to sign petitions. So here too, there are a number of question marks to be placed: why should one petition sign and another not?

In case reading the above paragraphs didn’t make your blood boil as it did mine, re-read them and replace “mass surveillance” with “genocide”. And remember that science is “neutral” on that subject too.

Heck, even Mr. van der Sloot’s core postulate on science being neutral doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Science isn’t neutral, it is entirely biased in favour of facts. It is the specific purpose of the scientific method to separate fact from fiction. However, what it does not then do is to assign a subjective value to those facts. That, once again, is the purview of philosophy and ethics.

But wait a minute, why are organisations that purport to defend your privacy silent on this topic?

Having dismissed the kindergarten philosophy underpinning Mr. van der Sloot’s argument, let’s turn to a more practical matter because there is one question that Mr. van der Sloot raises that I would also like an answer to:

Why are, in Mr. van der Sloot’s words, so “few words wasted on sponsorship by activist civil rights organizations such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPiC) [sic], Privacy First and Bits of Freedom, which are outspoken pro-privacy?”

Is it because these organisations are, as Mr. van der Sloot would like them to be, neutral when it comes to privacy? Are they objective bystanders, taking notes? If so, it would be helpful for us to know so we do not ascribe to them any sort of ethical or moral position on the subject of privacy so that we are not disappointed later. If they do, however, hold a position on the matter, now would be a good time for them to find their voices and their spines and tell us exactly what that position is.

I look forward to reading your responses to Mr. van der Sloot, EPIC, Privacy First, and Bits of Freedom.

A dangerous new attempt at reframing that we must nip in the bud

When I first became aware of the problem of surveillance capitalism and the threat it poses to personhood in the digital/networked age, I admit that I did naïvely believe that people who called themselves “privacy professionals” were there to protect our privacy, just like I like to believe that doctors are there to protect our health. In truth, the key word in that label isn’t privacy, it’s professional.

Privacy professionals are just people who get paid to work on the topic of privacy. Whether they work to protect or erode your privacy depends on who pays them. Given who holds the money and what their business model is (big tech and people farming), it is not surprising that most people who call themselves “privacy professionals” today work to erode, not protect, your privacy.

Even in such a corrupt status quo, the suggestions Mr. van der Sloot provides in his conclusion (“rules needed”) manage to convey a thirst for an even newer low:

What to do. Privacy science can connect to existing regulations of for example the KNAW and sector-specific regulations, such as in the medical sector. Or with the Dutch Code of Conduct for Scientific Practice of the VSNU, which states that a scientist must avoid personal relationships ‘that could raise reasonable doubt about the objectivity of his decisions’, that research must be carried out ‘scientifically soundly’ and methodologically correct on commission and that scientists must be transparent about their relationships, financial flows and any agreements with third parties.

All this is not enough, because it is too general and noncommittal. It would therefore be advisable to draw up further standards and guidelines for the integrity and independence of privacy science, but perhaps also more widely. Privacy is often found in ethical environments and privacy science permits ethical judgements more than once; this is precisely why it must conduct the ethical discussion about its own position and actions.

What Mr. van der Sloot is suggesting here is dangerous. It is a brazen attempt to further institutionalise the corruption in an already highly-corrupt field while shaming those already few who actually stand up for human rights and privacy. It is an attempt to get ethical privacy advocates de-platformed and potentially fired for being “unscientific”2 and biased.

Mr. van der Sloot wants people working in privacy to be neutral. In the words of Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

By this point, you might be wondering, “who is this Mr. van der Sloot you are talking about?” Who is this man who wants us to think privacy is a science (it’s not) and punish those privacy scientists (not a thing) who aren’t ‘neutral?’ What does he do? Well, he is the chief organiser of Amsterdam Privacy Conference sponsored by Google and Palantir. Oh, and he is also a docent at the Tilburg University on “Privacy and Big Data.”

Enough bullshit

In many ways, and without such intention, Mr. van der Sloot’s article shines an impossible-to-ignore spotlight onto the outstanding level of rot and corruption in academia and non-governmental organisations today. It also lays bare a new and dangerous effort to further cement such corruption institutionally by those that benefit financially from it.

Perhaps such a spectacular display of disdain of ethics, privacy, and human rights will be enough to overcome even the herculean efforts of suspension of disbelief practiced by some in our field to deny that we have a gigantic problem on our hands.

Or, to put it more simply, perhaps Mr. van der Sloot has produced a turd of such magnificence that even those who usually remain silent might see it fit to stand and comment.

I sure hope so.

Because the silence has been deafening as of late.

  1. All quotes are translated from the original with DeepL. [return]
  2. Not surprisingly, this newfound love for “science” is the same tactic used by the US factory farming industry in their attempts to push lower food standards on the EU, and most recently, on post-Brexit UK. [return]