OPINION

Individual privacy rights a la carte?

It is truly naive to question whether surveillance cameras in public places are a violation of citizens’ private life. Public spaces should be public in all regards. Just as individuals cannot request respect for the confidentiality of their telephone calls while shouting into their mobiles in the middle of a packed bus, in the same way they cannot request the protection of their privacy if they decide to perform acrobatics in Omonia Square. Whatever happens on the city’s roads and in its squares is effectively public property and not a private matter. The protection of private life should be draconian only in private spaces. The stance of the Hellenic Data Protection Authority (APPD) as regards the aforementioned question is very dangerous. I am not referring to the fact that the operation of surveillance cameras was banned after the Athens 2004 Olympics. I am referring to the fact that they were allowed to be used during the Games in the first place. Let me clarify what I mean. The APPD is authorized by the Constitution to protect our rights in a certain area. This authority believes that surveillance cameras violate citizens’ right to a private life. Despite this, it gave its permission for them to operate, evidently because it regards individual rights to be less important than the Olympic Games. The new theories say that the individual’s right not to be watched by surveillance cameras is to be respected across the land but not if one lives next door to an ambassador. This is not a matter of cops and robbers or terrorists and security services. It is erroneous to regard this as a dilemma between individual and collective safety. Individual rights should remain sacrosanct whether we are organizing the Olympic Games or just a simple gymnastics display. And they should apply everywhere, outside the homes of everyday citizens and President George W. Bush’s representative alike. It is a problem of definition. If we do not know what we are protecting, we end up spreading ourselves too thin and not guaranteeing anything to anyone. If we do not determine precisely and logically what is meant by «private life» then we will find that we have certain citizens whose personal details are less personal than others. The most serious concern is the division of society as regards civil rights. The impression that is being created is that democracy is not subject to inviolable principles and values, that laws can be implemented in different ways, according to the particular circumstances of the time. But this kind of thinking takes us down a very dangerous road. It is frightening to consider its consequences during a national crisis, for example.