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On privacy and culture

On privacy and culture

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By living in several different countries, I've seen different cultures, and one of the things I have noticed is that guaranteed and assumed *privacy* is completely culture-dependent. Moreover, privacy is also a very important part of human rights.

First, I was born in Estonia when it was occupied by Soviet Union. The SU had it's own rules, personal freedom was very limited. You were not only supposed to be loyal to the government, but you were also supposed not to be different from others. Every difference was actively punished. On the other hand, *Estonia* was somewhat more liberal compared to the other parts of the US, and Estonians tend to need and respect privacy of other people. So while any anomaly could have been reported, there was no neighbourhood watch, and you were able to do whatever you wanted given that it was only among people you could trust. Nevertheless, from this period onwards, Estonians do not trust foreigners, or just strangers.

Then Estonia became independent. Everything changed. In particular, there was a sudden sense of freedom, and also in the cultural sense, the first years were just a chaos. People were drunk of freedom, but then moved too quickly to the other extreme. In my opinion, nobody at this moment cared very much about privacy --- since there was freedom.

Estonia now is different. There is still freedom, but old cultural habits of the Soviet time restrict it a lot without people even noticing it. There are also problems with privacy --- in Estonia I would not be *very* surprised to get to know that somebody listens to my phone calls. As said, privacy is a part of the human rights. It actually seems that both human rights and privacy have gone downhill recently; the "bronze soldier" affair has influenced Estonia as much as 9/11 did influence the US.

An interesting experience was to live in Finland for five years. Now, Finland has harsh climate (not much worse than Estonia, but...), and people in Scandinavia in general have found out that to survive there, they must support each other. Finland is an extreme in many senses. The country with least corruption. The country with best education. The country with almost ideal gender equality. And the country with best privacy. Privacy is intervowen into Finnish culture. Finnish people *need* privacy. They are loners, stick to themselves, and don't bother other people. For this, they also expect not to be bothered. As a somewhat negative example, a lost tourist on the street will never be approached by a helping Finn, unless he himself asks for help. Finns would be afraid to violate his privacy, by approaching him when he may be does not want to be approached. (If he needs help, he can ask, no? If he doesn't, he just wants to be alone.) This corresponds precisely to the classical definition of privacy, the right of a person to be left alone. Finns grok it. They have the best privacy in the world, and together with it, best human rights.

Now I live in the UK.  The country with most cameras. There are CCTV cameras everywhere, and in a single pub you can find six (or more) of them. There is absolutely *no* sense of privacy whatsoever. You *can* mostly assume that nobody illegaly uses this information, but still - I don't like to be watched. I want my privacy. A few months ago I was walking around in London with my Finnish friend, who confessed that every time he is in the UK, he turns paranoid. After every two meters, he pointed out another camera. He just said he'd never be able to live in this country. Because of the lack of privacy.

There are other examples of this. I once had a situation where a real estate agency, without my agreement, entered the property that I rented from them. (I will not describe the nuances here.) After that I got a long letter from them commenting on the location of my chair, bed, and tidiness of the kitchen. I was shocked - in any other country, I hope, that could never happen. That was a direct violation of privacy, and from my point of view, they had grossly erred. However, they  completely failed to understand my point of view, stressing that  they have a right to enter and that I have to keep my stuff tidy all the time, and I should move my chair and bed to another location.

Well. As said, privacy and human rights are congruent, and you either have both or neither. I think Finland has both (even if it is a bit too extreme), while the UK and Estonia have none. I remember that around five years ago, still living in Finland, I participated in a Financial Cryptography conference that had an invited speaker talking about privacy. At this moment I didn't really understand his angst, and why he was so agitated. Right, he was from the UK, and I lived in Finland. I actually made a recommendation the next time to invite somebody from Finland. For a completely different perspective.

Finally, it is not a wonder that Bruce Scheier's blog, http://www.schneier.com/blog/, that started off as a geekish privacy/security blog, has now completely moved to the area of human rights and politics. Because privacy is politics.
  • quantifying culture-specifics of privacy

    Privacy is interesting to study because it's something where people's verbalized intents and actual behaviors are very different. People say they care about privacy, but when they are asked to give up personal data for 5% retail discount on some nonsense, they happily comply. There have been studies done in the US, but I don't know of any international comparative studies on this. Such a study would put some more specific figures on the differences that you describe.
  • Finland's not so private

    Just wanted to point out that the Tax Authority in Finland publishes and sells for profit their citizens personal data including income & tax records to companies and the press to be published, sold, put in magazines and sold as SMS services.

    This is the information you can purchase:

    For Natural Persons:
    Name, year of birth, municipality, government taxable income and captital income, municipal taxable income, income tax, municipal tax, taxes and payments owed, total of tax advances, amount of tax collections to be paid or returned.

    For Organizations:
    Name, municipality, business or organizational symbol, taxable income, total tax owed, total of tax advances, amount of tax collection to be paid or returned.

    For more instructions and order forms go here: www.vero.fi/mediapalvelu

    There are reports in the Finnish media of people being targeted and harassed because of this information being public. There are also complaints filed to the European Commission as the right to protection of personal data is part of the basic list of rights for the EU.

    To me, the sale of your personal data is one of the most serious breaches of privacy that can be enacted against the citizens of a country. So while you might not be bothered on the street by the average Finn, you might be mugged or burglarized by a not so honest Finn who gets your name and income information thanks to the government. Turns out Finland might not be the bastion of personal privacy that you think it is.
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