Journalism versus data privacy

Just because private data is “available” or easy to access today, does that make it legitimate for such data to be widely published? Where do we draw the line between journalism that expresses freedom of speech, and the rights of individuals to keep personal information private?

Journalists crossing the lines

Today, in most democratic societies, there exists a sacred understanding of the right to one’s privacy. In fact, so sacrosanct is that right that many nations have enshrined it in law - Privacy Act (PA) in the U.S, Data Protection Act (DPA) in the U.K., General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe and Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) in Canada.

Thank goodness for that!

Well, not so fast! Before we crack open champagne and raise our glasses in toast, lets pause for a moment and think about what we’ve accomplished – if anything at all.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, where Facebook was fined a massive £500,000 for failing to protect users’ privacy, has shown us that profit still trumps data privacy.  Then, there was Google, that was fined $2.7B for EU antitrust violations.  These two might look like incidents totally unrelated to journalism – but there seems to be a fine line between hacks, leaks and “outing” private citizens data.

Here’s what it could end up like:

  • Massive amounts of personal data concentrated in a few portals
  • That data may be mined by anyone (including journalists with dubious motives!)
  • The data could be poorly guarded, further exposing personal privacy
  • Hackers might exploit poorly guarded private information and compromise the right to privacy

So…what’s that got to journalism, I hear you ask?

Take the hacking of the Sony emails, along with millions of pieces of personal information. Public figures, like Ben Affleck, experienced first-hand what the misuse of personal information by journalists and news media can do. But Journalists from the Guardian decided to make them public – even though the information was secured through illegal means. Even within the journalistic community, that was deemed crossing the line. In fact, a New York Times Op Ed (by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin) called it “morally treasonous and spectacularly dishonorable,”. Also a representative from iHeartRaves told us they were appalled by the hack.
Privacy tools has opened a new frontier for journalists. With so many venues to access personal data, journalists now have the technology to stitch together scary profiles about people’s behavior, their preferences and their digital lives. Crossing the line just got easier!

Justifying transgressions

Very often, journalists justify these transgressions in the name of freedom of expression, freedom of the press or freedom of speech. The central idea behind that defense is that, it’s in the “broader public interest” to put otherwise private data into the public domain.
And it’s not just “main stream” media that’s jumped on that bandwagon. Hiding behind that thin veil are also bloggers, tweeters and people who call themselves “citizen journalists”. In fact, if you have a smartphone today, there’s nothing that anyone can do to stop you from “reporting” a story or “expressing an opinion” – even if that expression infringes on your right to privacy!

No one is slamming investigative journalism at its best. And no one should propose the total outlawing of professional journalism. But when it comes to putting our personal information out there just because it sells – that’s where journalists become salespeople. There’s always a motive to “outing” your privacy.  It’s what sells newspapers, drives visitor numbers up on websites and social platforms and improves viewership ratings for “mainstream” news channels. 

Voices of sanity

Whether it is journalists with an agenda, or personal data collectors and aggregators like social media sites, there needs to be harsher pushback from the masses where privacy is concerned. This means making privacy tools for journalists more widely available. It’s no longer enough to blacklist a journalist or his/her employer for a day. And “unfriending” someone that’s crossed the line is hardly compensation for those who have suffered the consequences of breach of privacy.

Thankfully, there are voices of sanity out there – and some of them with powerful bullhorns – that are thinking just the same thing. Late last year Apple Inc’s CEO, Tim Cook, lambasted government apathy towards what he called the media’s "weaponization" of our private data.  In fact, Mr. Cook called privacy a “fundamental human right” that must be protected at all cost.  

And those voices are not being restricted to the corporate world. Sanity over individual privacy was displayed recently in the justice system. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) tested the question of whether journalists, in the interest of freedom of expression and the broader “public good”, have the right to trump individual rights to privacy.

In their ruling, on what’s popularly known as the Satamedia case, the Court agreed that the dissemination of private data (in this case tax data of nearly 1.2 million citizens)

“…had not contributed to a debate of public interest, and had not been for a solely journalistic purpose”.

In one sentence: the duty of journalists to respect an individual’s right to privacy trumped a journalist’s right to freedom of expression.

Journalists rely heavily on the use of online sources to get the personal and private data they publish. But even data collection giants like Google, have seen sanity in the argument that personal data is private data…and not a journalistic commodity. That’s why there are now tools like the User Deletion API that can help users take back control of their personal data.

In recognition of the fact that freedom of information does not trump our individual rights to privacy, European lawmakers have also seen it wise to act. The right to be forgotten has now been firmly entrenched into GDPR legislation. Hopefully, without access to our personal data, journalists will likely not be able to sensationalize and publicize our private and intimate thoughts and actions under freedom of information.