Interview with Charles Raab
Privacy in the scales
Political scientist Charles Raab speaks about different facets of privacy and discusses why regulators often set greater store on national security than privacy.
Privacy has different facets. Are they sufficiently taken into account in the practice of regulation?
I don’t think so. There are many facets of privacy which, apart from it being an individual right, are not taken into consideration – such as the way in which various information practices affect groups of people or affect an entire society. While I think it's very important that we don't lose the idea that privacy is a right, I think it’s insufficient and in regulating it, we need to go wider than that and think about what effect do various kinds of information practices have upon other values such as dignity and autonomy and also on groups or categories of people who may fall through the net in terms of privacy regulation.
How does culture factor in when it comes to privacy and its regulation?
It depends on what you mean by ‘culture’. If you mean whole countries, national culture and so on, I think, we can find that there are some countries or cultures that are more privacy aware through historical factors or otherwise and others that are not. If you are trying to understand the way privacy can be regulated across a variety of cultures, then you come up against possibly a conflict between the idea of privacy as a universal human right and more particular understandings of privacy even within society. The culture for example of certain kinds of people whether they're young people doing Facebook and all of that compared to older people who don't do that and therefore have a different understanding of how they are affected or not. It's a very difficult question because culture merges into the idea of context. And in certain contexts there are norms in which privacy may be violated. In other contexts those norms are not necessarily violated by the way information gathering, information use takes place.
Why does national security often take priority when regulators try to balance national security and privacy?
There are two parts of that: One is because national security – particularly when one is thinking about terrorist threats – is relatively easy to be portrayed as the number one priority of governments. That governments will say “our number one priority is to keep people secure and keep people safe”. I'm not saying that they shouldn't say that but when they say that privacy therefore is normally considered to be much less important then, it's taking a fairly short-term view of it. Secondly, when they talk about balancing the one with the other it's very rare for them to say how they do that balancing what they put in the scales. It may be that one person may balance it different from another and yet both of them be equally concerned with both national security and privacy. It's a very difficult area to operate in if you’re using terms like ‘balance’ and ‘national security’ and a term like “privacy”. Everything is difficult in that area and ultimately it depends upon having maybe deeper thoughts and also perhaps a wider public debate about national security.