Law in the Internet Society

Diminishing our personhood

-- By SofiaJaramillo - 17 Dec 2016


In an earlier post, I described different ways in which States and private corporations surveilled and monitored individuals in order to highlight the potentiality that these techniques have for the control and shaping of individuals. In this short essay, I will try to unpack the concept of the right to privacy by showing its relation to freedom of expression and how the interference with it can result in an insidious harm to our agency.

Freedom of Expression, Privacy and Agency

Many of us have heard that freedom of expression is fundamental to the consolidation and strengthening of democracies. At least in Latin America, the phrase “Freedom of expression is a cornerstone upon which the very existence of a democratic society rests”, coined by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the 1980s, has been quoted to the point of exhaustion by human rights advocates. In the United States, the relation between freedom of speech and democratic societies is made quite evident, among other reasons, by the vast amount of case law related to the first amendment.

From my personal experience in the time I have lived in the United States, as well as information I have been able to gather and exchanges of ideas with professors and colleagues, the notion of enjoying freedom of expression is deeply rooted in the social fabric of the United States.

Therefore it should not be strange, rather less novel, to argue that only by having a real freedom to express ourselves is it possible to openly discuss controversial and radical ideas about issues of public interest or public officials, and of course, share our completely banal opinions. In this sense, it is also easy to infer that freedom of expression makes personal and intellectual enrichment of individuals possible. Indeed, being able to be heard and receive feedback on our ideas without noise or interference, helps us form our own opinions and define our own cultural, social, religious and political choices. Furthermore, by being exposed to a diversity of thoughts, ideas, news and information, we can craft our own personality and design our life plans. Freedom of expression allows us to be more mature and reflective individuals, which not only benefits us, but also the society in which we live. When the free flow of ideas and information is somehow restricted, the possibilities of life choices for people are weakened. Indeed, any lifestyle choices or viewpoints that are not known to us, we cannot choose.

In this sense, it is also possible to say that in order to share our political, religious or ideas of any other nature, we need to have a space free from interference by the State or any other individual or group of individuals. Violations to our privacy (surveillance or the monitoring of conversations), then, can also affect our freedom of expression. For example, if we imagine that someone is observing us when we read, think, and communicate (sort of an intellectual surveillance), that follow us at every moment of our day and monitors our behavior, it is likely we would refrain from experiencing and expressing new ideas that may be perceived as controversial. This is particularly worrisome when whoever surveils does not stop at playing a passive role, but instead reaches inside and experiments with our behavior.

Since the fifties, privacy has been considered essential for our existence. Professor Eben Moglen offers an explanation about privacy that allows us to explore the different effects that intrusions to this right may have. He states that privacy can be understood to comprise three concepts: secrecy, anonymity and autonomy. Secrecy refers to the ability to maintain messages private, so that the content is only known by those who send it and those intended to receive it. Anonymity refers to the ability of maintaining the identity of those who transmit and receive the message obscured. These two concepts are the ones most often referred to as being targeted or violated by surveillance. However, our autonomy is likely the aspect of privacy most affected by monitoring and surveillance. Autonomy refers to our “ability to make our life decisions free [of] any force which has violated our secrecy or our anonymity […]. Without secrecy, democratic self-government is impossible.” According to [ ][Privacy International]] “autonomy is not just about the subjective capacity of an individual to make a decision, but also about having the external social, political and technological conditions that make such a decision possible. Privacy confers those external conditions. As private autonomy is a key component of public life and debate, privacy is not only a social value, but also a public good”.

In this sense, the interference to our privacy caused by the surveillance of our behavior significantly affects our autonomy, and the strengthening of our personhood. Intrusions to or interferences with our privacy undermine it. Control of our own information and behavior by ourselves is diminished, either because someone else is actively shaping our behavior or because they have access to it and decide not to act on it. From the perspective of the “knower” (i.e. the monitoring/surveilling party), the very existence of the person being monitored shrinks. This relationship is so uneven that the “knower” may eventually cease to recognize the individual subject to surveillance as a full subject. Michael Lynch explains this idea stating that the “knower” will learn the reactions to the stimuli the person subjected to surveillance has, why the person acts the way they do, and how that person “may become like any other object to be manipulated even if” the knower decides not to manipulate her. The person being monitored will be dehumanized in the eyes of the knower.


With the presence of abusive State surveillance and monitoring by private corporation our agency is undermined, weakened. The effects these techniques have on our development and growth as mature individuals is not always evident, but they continue to evolve. The various forms in which we can be molded without often realizing it, affects our ability of self-evaluation. We need to be aware of the consequences that surveillance and monitoring have in our daily life. We need to fetch the choices that will allow us to use technology to improve our thinking and our ability to learn. We have to begin to make our process of learning and exchanging ideas, a purposeful act. Being able to understand how technology works is daunting, but having an idea of what it does and its effects on society is an imperative.


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r5 - 21 Feb 2017 - 04:59:15 - SofiaJaramillo
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