In much of the world world it is assumed that people should have some freedom of thought and speech. In New Zealand these are expressed in section thirteen and fourteen of the Bill of Rights Act 1990.

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief, including the right to adopt and to hold opinions without interference.
  • Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.

Data privacy is an integral part of these freedoms. While data can be used for both positive and negative results the largest collections of data are currently held by business in order to increase profit. By itself, Google has been estimated to have over fifteen million terabytes of storage with other large data centres being held by Amazon, Facebook, IBM and Microsoft. By 2017 The Economist had declared the worlds most valuable resource to be data.

This affects privacy in many ways. In 2012 Michal Kosinski, David Stillwell and Thore Graepel released a research paper showing how easily accessible records of behaviour, can be used to automatically and accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes including: sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender. All with a high degree of accuracy. It can be assumed that the papers methodology is being used on many databases in order to increase the profits of business.

This affects freedom of thought and speech in a number of ways. If people know they are being tracked they act differently. Curtailing normal behaviour in order to not to be targeted. An example of this could be someone not seeking help or information as they don’t want to be linked to that search or website. In a questionnaire by Citizen Lab in Canada 26% of people strongly agreed with the statement, “I would be more careful about what I search for online” when asked about corporate surveillance and 29% somewhat agreed. The results also showed that people were more likely to self censor searches if young and/or female. This impinges on the right to expression in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

Online tracking also alters the right to adopt opinions by encouraging confirmation bias. What is seen on online searches and/or sites by one person is not what is seen by another. This can lead to people not seeing opinions and ideas that counter their own. Time spent on the site and the advertisements clicked on are more important than if something is true. Unfortunately, one way to increase time on a site is to show the user ever increasing amounts of divisive, sensational and conspiratorial content in line with what they want to think. This doesn’t lead to the good getting better and the bad get worse but instead to increased belief in distorted viewpoints with dopamine rewards being given for time on the site and that isn’t freedom of thought and speech. That’s addiction.