A nuanced look at data privacy

Jeroen Seynhaeve / Word count [ 418 ] View all [ 41 ] / Vertaal naar Nederlands



Like so many of its social and political issues, South Africa appears to approach the matter of privacy protection from the perspective of radically opposing interests.

I see similarities with how South Africa manages fair labour practice. Two opposing camps with mutually exclusive interests get access to low cost, informal dispute resolution. What unions, employers’ organisations and the CCMA are for labour, privacy advocates, data advocates and the Information Regulator are for privacy. Perhaps we may even liken people’s refusal to share personal information to a labour strike – protective, collective action by the weakest party in a heavily skewed power relationship.

There are of course good reasons for this similarity. Informal judicial tribunals are more accessible than costly, long-winded and advocate-ridden High Courts. There is little doubt that the instrument of conciliation that both the CCMA and the Information Regulator have at their disposal, serves purposes of swift and fair justice. And there is no denying that the interests of privacy and data advocates are opposed, and each in its own right deserves protection.

But in the conversations I pick up on our way to effective privacy protection enforcement from 1 July, what I see is not a nuanced conversation that attempts to find a reasonable compromise between opposing interests.

What I see is a radical approach from polarised corners – a boxing match comes to mind.

I stand to be corrected, but I have never seen much good coming from single-minded tunnel-vision: the light at the end may seem a clearly defined dot from a distance, but as we get closer quickly turns into a blinding flash, too bright to see anything.

I would like to see a more nuanced approach to data privacy. The reckless sharing and involuntary intrusions of privacy are problematic, but so is the blind ignorance of the good that modern humanity derives from the free flow of data. We have a moral obligation to inform ourselves about the benefits ánd the burdens of privacy protection. The concept of privacy plays a crucial role in how we define humanity in a world governed by technology. It is therefore crucial that we fully understand what privacy and its protection means – what exactly are we protecting, at the cost of what?

What we decide today may contribute to our definition of what makes us human tomorrow, but we can only make informed decisions if we open up the debate to include all interests, values, harms and benefits.