Privacy: online versus offline
Traditional commerce raises all of the same privacy issues as online commerce, but nowadays policymakers, advocates try harder to offer privacy by implementing stricter rules, communicating privacy awareness campaigns and other elements of privacy policies to online users (which is great) than have for the local grocery store or Mall. For example, what would happen if someone’s credit card information that used for a purchase in a shopping mall leaked out to unauthorized persons or hackers? Would the workers in the store notify the victim? Would they do anything to limit the damages? I am not sure. Furthermore, do we really know what kind of information is collected when we place a simple pizza order over the phone (in an offline store)? This brings up the question as to what are the risks to our information available offline in relation with the online one? This video below shows an example of serious privacy issues. The video is not real, is just an exaggeration aiming to show how serious companies take customers’ private information for their business. I am also not sure to whom I should give credit for this video as there are many copies on the Internet.
In several localities in Brussels, Belgium there is an administrative rule in place that requires the residents to deposit their garbage, which is sorted into three different colored bags (yellow, blue and white) in order to be recycled and it is placed on the sidewalk for pickup. The colors of the garbage bags represent its contents. The blue bags have cans and plastic containers, the white bags have non-recyclable garbage, and the yellow bags contain paper and cardboard. Since these garbage bags must be deposited on the sidewalk, in front of the apartment buildings where residents live and in the reach of anyone walking in these localities day and night.
What is important to note is that the yellow bags containing paper usually have a lot of sensitive and personal information or documents such as: bills, letters from the local authorities, bank statements with full bank account numbers, IBAN, name, address and balance, cellular phone bill with detailed phone calls list, letters, post cards, pictures, subscriptions to magazines, clothing labels with size and brand, old CV or Resume, medical tests with private medical condition, prescriptions, etc. It is true that people should know how to safely dispose of these documents regardless of whether they are deposited on the street or in a less accessible garbage bin. However, not everyone owns a shredder or has the facilities to burn those sensitive documents. Furthermore, many people don’t know how to safely dispose of sensitive documents such as shredding and burning as mentioned. (Please note that there are tutorials available online on safe disposal of documents containing personal and private data). E-Crime Expert will post one soon.
Because these bags are colored and thus every citizen knows exactly what type of contents the bags contain, it makes it easy for criminals to search through yellow garbage bags for personal information. Thus, this situation increases the potential for crime to occur.
Furthermore, these garbage bags left on the street and available to anyone reach, are routinely checked by the police along with the garbage disposal staff and some civilian volunteers, in order to see if the citizens placed the correct type of items in the correct colored bags. In this case, the authorities and other civilians are out rightly accessing personal information without informing the person whose information is being looked through. They are gaining information about the person based on what they eat, what they purchase, what company they have insurance with, which bank they use and all the personal data associated with these items and documents. They are “accessing” personal information without consent, where the subject does not know what is the purpose of “accessing”, who access it, where that private information is classified or disposed. I assume that it would be fairer to send a notice to the subject and inform him/her about the purpose of their action, without violating someone’s private life and correspondence. I know that in same States from United States of America, by putting the garbage on the street means that one abandoned his/her garbage and then the police can search or seize it. In Belgium, some citizens (from those localities where this rule is in place) do not have the choice to deposit de garbage in their apartment building’s hallways in special containers, they being forced to deposit it on the street where it is considered public domain. It is not a matter of abandon but rather a matter of no choice.
Regardless that there are strict rules in place as to how the recycled materials should be disposed of, this administrative rule seems to overlook or overstep the fundamental human rights: “respect for private life” or “respect for private and family life, home and correspondence”, as outlined bellow in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union:
Respect for private and family life
Everyone has the right to respect for his or her private and family life, home and communications”.
Article 8 – Right to respect for private and family life
1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.
Would be appropriate to interpret this interference of the authorities along with civilians, into someone’s private correspondence (even disposed) in the name of national security, or public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”? Some of these could apply, however there is no reason for the authorities and “civilians” to manually search each bag containing private information and especially without the person’s consent or being present during the search.
In the online world, many advocates (including myself) monitor how public authorities have access to users’ personal information (such videos, posts on Facebook, pictures, etc.), blowing the whistle when this is not done properly or in accordance to the law. But in the offline world, there doesn’t appear to be very strict monitoring of how the fundamental rights to private correspondence are respected in the European Union.
Another parallel could be when a user deletes a personal message and sends it to the “Trash” box in his email account. If an unauthorized person accesses that message even in the trash box, then he/she is called a hacker and has legal liability for hacking and intruding into a private email account. But when the citizen deposits his private information in a garbage bin “Trash” in the offline world, and one comes to check and collect that information in the name of the law or not, this is not considered intrusion or neither “hacking”, it is simply standard procedure for monitoring compliance with garbage disposal. Both intrusions could have the same devastating effects regardless of whether the personal information is in an electronic form or in hard copy.
To conclude, the point is that even if society has to pay more attention to new challenges and risks occurring in the online world (with its characteristics such as borderless, timeless, easy access, dematerialization, globalization, etc.), the old threats should never be forgotten. Focusing more on complicated issues, we may escape some simpler issues but they are just as important as the complicated ones. The most disturbing is what one could do with both offline and online information on a subject such as seen in the “Ordering a Pizza” video. In any case, people should pay equal attention to their online and offline “tracks” and ultimately to their private information.
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What do you think about online privacy versus offline one? Do you think they are the same? Do you think that the garbage on the street should be considered as abandoned?
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