Privacy challenges in a digital age

The human right to privacy raises a plethora of global policy, legal and political challenges for governments.

Issues such as data retention, data breaches and the interaction between public securities versus private autonomy are all creating a diversity of public debates in Australia and around the world.

In 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council responded to these challenges with the appointment of the first Rapporteur for Privacy, PROFESSOR JOSEPH CANNATACI.

His appointment is a significant global milestone in the protection of privacy as a fundamental human right.

He visited ANU to talk about his deep, long-standing interest in privacy-related behaviour by Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, noting his career-long inspiration from legendary ANU anthropologist Professor Bill Stanner.

Below is an edited extract of his speech. Listen to the full speech on Soundcloud.

On the screen behind me is a picture of Vint Cerf, reputed to be one of the fathers of the Internet. If you Google ‘Cannataci and Vint Cerf’, you will probably find some reference to the time when I supposedly called him ‘dumb’.

To be precise, I said: ‘I couldn’t understand how such an intelligent man could say such a dumb thing.’ And this is what I replied to:

‘Privacy may actually be an anomaly. Privacy is a construct of the modern industrial age. In the past, people lived in small self-contained villages where pretty much everybody knew who was dating the baker’s daughter and what the sheriff had for lunch. It is only when populations started migrating en masse to cities that anonymity emerged as a by-product of urbanisation.’

I’ve since met Vint Cerf but I have to say that sentence, ‘privacy may actually be an anomaly’, is pure and undiluted rubbish. Clearly, Vint Cerf was saying that because he’s never read the works of Bill Stanner.

My research focuses on electronics. If there’s a chip in it, my teams take an interest in it. We study it and we try to understand the privacy implications.

One of the questions I’ve been asking relating to privacy is: why is privacy important? I keep going back to people, asking them why this is so important. Most importantly, is privacy something you value because it’s an end in itself or because it’s a means to an end?

I put it to you that while privacy is very much a standalone right, at the same time, privacy is also an enabling right and it exists because there is an overarching right, formally recognised in some countries, to the free, uninhibited development of one’s personality.

Together with other fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression, privacy is very much the bubble within which one is able to develop one’s personality away from the public eye.