Lieven's Blog

What's on my mind...

What is the value of freedom and privacy in the digital age?

Clipboard with Pencil_16x16Freedom is this beautiful thing that gives us options in life. When we are free, we can make our own decisions, think what we want to think and say what we want without the fear of being killed or put into prison. These days it is the search for more freedom that motivates the people in the Arab world. They fight and do whatever necessary to pave the way to a more free life. I hope they will succeed and win their freedom. But what about freedom in the Western world? Are we protecting it or are we taking it for granted?

Today I went running and this great app on my iPhone kept track of my location, speed, calories burned etc. After the run the data synchronize automatically with a "global website for runners". Now everyone could know exactly where I was and what I did. Most of the software applications that I frequently use like google-maps and others, know exactly where I’ve been. Actually as soon as I switch on my mobile phone my movements can be tracked. Personal information about me can be found on Facebook, linkedin, twitter, youtube, etc. When I go shopping I use the electronic customer cards my wife asks me to use because the more I use them, the more benefits I get. In this way all the large supermarket chains in my country know almost exactly what I like as a customer, how frequently I shop and how much I spend on grocery. When I enter some cities in Europe and Asia by car, a picture is taken automatically of my car and numberplate. When i take the plane my retina is scanned so I can be identified easily. Every time I enter Japan or the US, my fingerprints are taken. The “Cloud” will soon store all our documents, pictures and home movies. Not to mention the times I clicked on the I accept button when a Legal Terms and Conditions pop-up window appeared on my screen. I’m sure I’m forgetting many other examples where information about me is registered and analyzed by “I don’t know who”. All this information is used somewhere and just like millions of other people I voluntarily share this information. It’s for my convenience or for my safety...I like to think.

Recently I read this article in a respected business magazine where they explained how civil servants from the tax office use Facebook and Netlog information to get a better view of your spendings. When one of the citizens involved complained about this in court, the judge ruled in favor of the tax office... oeps, not always for our convenience and for our safety?

What would happen if our government would, in the name of safety, use all this information to control us. When we would loose our job, because we have an opinion that doesn’t favor the current government? When we would suddenly “disappear” because our last tweet was to critical for the regime? I hardly find someone to talk about this. I think this is because our current Western generation always knew freedom, we just can’t imagine that it could be taken away from us. The digital world is a new world were being anonymous has become almost impossible and we seem to be fine with it. The only people I can have a serious conversation about this are my German friends. The last 100 years they had two totalitarian regimes (the Nazis in the 1930’s until 1945 and the DDR until 1989). These regimes did everything possible to know as much as they could about it’s citizens in order to control them. I think the Stasi, the secret service of the former DDR, would only have dreamed of something like the internet. Many German people know what could happen when a regime turns bad. If this would happen in the current digital age, our freedom would be gone in an instance. Because all this information is out there and difficult to delete.

The paradox is that those who want freedom are often even ready to die for it. Previous generations did it in World War II and current generations are doing it in Syria, Egypt and many other places. On the other hand, those who always knew freedom are maybe not aware of its value? We do very little to prevent that this great digital world that we have created could become one day the means to take away our freedom. At this point we enjoy the convenience and we don’t (want to) see the potential threat. The most important threat to freedom however, is taking it for granted. (791 words)

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