Living In Glass Houses: The State Of Privacy Today
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Living In Glass Houses: The State Of Privacy Today

Living In Glass Houses: The State Of Privacy Today

Jeanette Teh, assistant professor in the School of Business Administration at the Canadian University Dubai (CUD) discusses privacy concerns in the digital era.


We’ve all done it. We commiserate about that horrible client with our colleagues or that unfit parent with our friends. Now, imagine if our ranting is broadcast very loudly on a public speaker for that person and the whole world to hear.

Those who have ever written less than polite e-mails may still be cringing at the Sony hack which revealed very frank discussions about celebrities and President Obama, embarrassing both its senior executives and Hollywood stars alike.

While 2014 may be remembered for the shocking ISIL beheadings or aviation disasters, those in the cyber security industry are calling it the year of the data breach after an onslaught of hacking attacks on large corporations such as JP Morgan Chase, Home Depot, Target, and Apple’s iCloud.


These high-profile incidents should serve as a wake-up call to us all as the learnings from these hackings are plentiful:

• Companies need to invest more in cyber security as the financial and reputational costs far outweigh the investment in secure networks.

• Regular back-ups should be made in the event hackers delete critical information.

• Procure cyber insurance which provides coverage for costs associated with responding to security breaches, notifying customers, business interruptions, and even fines imposed by authorities.

• Develop corporate policies and training about appropriate content in e-mails.

• Implement an emergency response plan for dealing with security incidents.


As hackers are not interested in exposing photos about those of us who aren’t Jennifer Lawrence, how does this lack of data security and privacy impact ordinary people?

In 2001, I wrote an article for the Yale Journal of Law and Technology in which I described a Big Brother environment, citing George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, where people lived in fear all the time, never knowing when the Thought Police were watching their every move.

Perhaps the younger generation of selfie-lovers, who take photos of their every daily activity to share instantly on social media sites, may have grown up living in glass houses and are, therefore, accustomed to constant publicity. However, just what are the longer term consequences of this lack of privacy?

There are several perspectives about the importance of privacy:

• Privacy as control: We need to have a choice to decide what information we want to share with others. What we tell our best friend would certainly differ to what we might want our boss to know.

• Privacy as a relational interest: We share sensitive information about ourselves with those closest to us and it is this sharing that defines our relationship.

• Privacy as preserving individuality: Privacy has psychological and social value beyond its impact on our reputation. Someone who is deprived of privacy, having her every action or thought publicised would lose her sense of individuality and dignity since she would develop only socially-acceptable ideas and behaviours to avoid ostracism.

With the constant erosion of privacy, not only could we lose our sense of individuality, creativity or unique personalities, but this self-censorship may ultimately result in the loss of independent thinking, free speech and dissenting ideas, all of which are necessary for progress and development.

Recognising the importance of privacy in the digital age as a human right, in November, the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Council passed “The right to privacy in the digital age”, a resolution for states to respect and protect privacy of its citizens.

As crucial as this resolution is, it only applies to governmental surveillance and not to those ubiquitous mobile phone cameras snapping pictures all around us or to those companies so intent on planting cookies on our web browsers to track our click-trails online.


Edward Snowden, the poster child of whistleblowers, stated unequivocally that “a child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all”.

That paper I wrote 14 years ago as a young law and MBA student was called “Privacy Wars in Cyberspace”. What had shocked me back then is now commonplace today.

Once upon a time, I was a warrior arguing fervently for the right of privacy and now, complacent or perhaps too tired to battle, I reluctantly give away some of my personal information for the sake of convenience or simply in plain defeat.

That walk down memory lane reminds me that the good old days of anonymity are gone and that living in glass houses may be the new normal, not only in cyberspace, but also perhaps right down here on earth.

Jeanette Teh is assistant professor in the School of Business Administration at the Canadian University Dubai (CUD). A former lawyer from Toronto, who has practiced privacy and ICT law, corporate/commercial and real estate law in Canada and the UAE, Jeanette teaches business law, employment law, business ethics, and management. Any views expressed in this article are solely those of the author’s and not of the university.


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