People are increasingly willing to disclose their personal information to third parties. In return, they are granted access to applications, information databases, online activities and the enjoyment of wider social recognition from other users.
The need for transparency has been embraced by various institutions and bodies, such as national governments, political parties, as well as international organizations and private enterprises.
At the same time, the necessity to enhance transparency extends further, to the people associated with those public and private sector establishments, such as heads of states, politicians, public servants, employees and individual service users. First and foremost, it should be noted that transparency is undoubtedly an instrument for democratic scrutiny.
However, the problem lies in the fact that transparency is being used not only as a means to control power, but also as a means to surveil citizens. In the latter case, the public and private domain are intermingled, thus creating an inseparable transparent sphere.
New technologies, social media, mass digitalization and the processing of personal data all contribute to the formation of an indissoluble transparent whole. People are increasingly willing to disclose their personal information to third parties. In return, they are granted access to applications, information databases, online activities and the enjoyment of wider social recognition from other users.
In reality, however, such a transaction modifies human behavior. More specifically, for millennia, the human presence in both public and private areas was delimited by the sentiment of shame, which can basically be described by two concepts: on the one hand, discretion, that is the practice of not meddling in other people’s lives, on the understanding that they will not interfere in ours, and, on the other, disgrace, which is the consciousness of the shame caused by our actions and thoughts.
Nowadays, the average person’s sentiment of shame, as defined by the abovementioned notions, is gradually diminishing over time. Billions of people, all around the world, are willing to incessantly disclose personal information regarding their everyday lives to third parties, such as search engines, electronic databases, or to their internet friends, people they met online, but who, in most cases, are complete strangers.
They disclose precisely the kind of information whose provision would have been avoided in the past, for reasons of discretion or in order for someone to avoid disgrace. One’s medical data, personal thoughts, sexual orientation and preferences, private moments, eccentric choices, everyday fears, all are being digitalized and converted into data, which are bought, sold and stored, but, above all, which predict, control and influence human behavior.
Thus, through this phenomenon, best described as “surveillance capitalism,” we are witnessing the emergence of a new type of human. The transparent man, whom I would term “homo translucidus.” A man who experiences the sentiment of shame in a different way, one could say in a less intensive way, than in the past. A man who willingly barters his right to privacy, a man who has no problem in being constantly in plain view. At the same time, new technologies facilitate or even coerce this kind of “transparent behavior.”
In this context, the transparent man undermines the very notion of human rights, while at the same time hindering the proper functioning of democracy. What was defined at the end of the 19th century as “the right to be let alone,” that is to say the right to privacy, seems already like a vestige of another era, as the day homo translucidus tragically claims a “right to be surveilled” is not far away.
The respect of the core of a human being, thus the respect of the uniqueness and moral autonomy of each and every one of us, requires the unwavering worldwide commitment to the protection of privacy.
In order to progress in that direction, more social and political actions should be adopted, as now, more than ever before, the very essence of democracy, human freedom, is at stake.
Dr Marinos Skandamis is a Supreme Court lawyer. He was formerly general secretary of Crime Policy at the Greek Ministry of Justice.