The Invention of the Century: Privacy

On: October 27, 2010
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About Fenneke Mink
Master student New Media & Digital Culture: thesis subject Google Art Project. Finished BA of applied science in Information and Documentation Management (IDM) at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam (HvA). After this I worked as Information manager at ING. Recent working for CBS as Statistic Analist in new media sources. My interest of new media is triggered by initiatives of digitalization projects. In 2009/2010 I have been working at ANP Foundation's project to preserve Dutch cultural heritage of 50.000 news photos form 1963 to 1967. You can have a look at this project via: . I also have been involved with


Privacy is considered to be an important issue for it is not just a social structure within a community, which can be regulated by social control anymore. It has developed to a dialectic notion of widespread surveillance activities within modern society. The notion of privacy that seems so important to us is a concept invented in the 19yh century, within the change of our modern society, nowadays our notion of privacy as cultural structure changes as well.

I have nothing to hide

In “I’ve Got Nothing to Hide and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy” Associate Professor at George Washington University Law School, Daniel J. Solove explores the privacy discourse by stating that; The argument that no privacy problem exists if a person has nothing to hide is frequently made in connection with many privacy issues. When the government engages in surveillance, many people believe that there is no threat to privacy unless the government uncovers unlawful activity, in which case a person has no legitimate justification to claim that it remain private.” As he explores; “the ‘nothing to hide’ argument and its variants in more depth. Grappling with the ‘nothing to hide’ argument is important, as the argument reflects the sentiments of a wide percentage of the population. In popular discourse, the ‘nothing to hide’ argument’s superficial incantations can readily be refuted. But when the argument is made in its strongest form, it is far more formidable.” He claims that; “The problem, in short, is not with finding an answer to the question: ‘If you’ve got nothing to hide, then what do you have to fear?’ The problem is in the very question itself.”

You have a choice

The past week has been the week of Dutch Organ Donor Registration, Dutch celebrities called for new attendees of the organ donor registration system on YouTube. The discourse of political power structures notable in networks such as society has been an important topic in network society theory. Herewith I will discuss the society of the Netherlands as a network defined by an implicit protocol structure.  In adaptation of this protocol, the organ donor registration system contradicts with the structure of the power relations working in the Dutch society. Let me explain myself as I call not only for citizens to register to the organ donor system, but also  plead for a change of the donor registration system.

Choose life

A control society is determined by non physical boundaries. Actual bodies are not enclosed in our society by fault, information of our daily lives is representing us in digital information systems. In “Postscript on control societies” Deleuze claims in following up on Foucault’s “Discipline and Punishment” that our society is in a continuous state of control. The physical classification of the human body in spaces of discipline, such as the hospital or prison have changed form an analog environment to a digital setting. One can think of public health systems, financial and insurance information systems and personal data systems. Deleuze describes possible hazards of control when applied by digital technology. The society gets subordinated by such technology by the originate of destruction or disturbance of documented data. Next to this kind of risks, Deleuze also points out the danger of sabotage by other parties of such information.  Examples of control in Dutch Society are the Electronic Medical Record, the Public Transport Chip Card and Fingerprint Identification in Passports. To stay in the theme of this week of donor registration, let me put emphasis here on the former example. Reflecting this notion of danger on the Electronic Medical Record (EMR) – Elektronisch Patiënten Dossier– , which is being enforced in the Netherlands as we speak, we can forecast different possible hazards. Before I go on, let me explain some more about the society as a network.


It isn’t very easy to show the underlying power structure in a network without a clear center. Networks without a clear centre are distributed or decentralized networks, the current power structures aren’t posted in a central force. For not to drown in this wide topic, I will restrict myself to decentralized networks and will explore the question how power can be controlled within such a network. A network is structure where space and time come together and join into a force driven by different external and internal aspects. In a discipline society power works from a central point through the underlying hierarchy. Foucault claims in a discipline society, a central force works from a central point, this central point is mostly taken by governments. In such a society the government has absolute power and control over its inhabitants in a closed system. On this topic Deluze as well Galloway argue that modern society isn’t controlled by discipline, nowadays society is controlled in digital information systems. This society functions in a controlled structure of a continuous feedback loop between the government and its inhabitants. The power structure in such a society is shared within the two parties. This decentralization reflects in different rights and duties one has, such as the right to vote and duty to pay taxes.


Different factors of the control society are joint in a network of implicit power relations. Or how Grewal calls it: “sociability”. The spectrum of implicit and explicit agreements comes for example to expression in Dutch society with registration for Dutch citizenship in the people register. A characteristic of Dutch society is to receive a personal citizen code at registration to the central citizen database. Herewith every citizen is registries into the system of control. Next to explicit expression of control structure, are implicit control structures. This structures are shaped within, how Bourdieu calls it: “habitus. A so called half consciousness system of traditions and behavior. Such as eating at the dinner table with knife and fork. Even though this practical behavior, it doesn’t get actively applied through dinner on a cognitive level. Grewal claims that the power structure compelled within society shifts at the dynamics of sovereignty and sociability. This is where the implicit and explicit force expose itself.

Social Health Network

General practitioners are connected witch other practices through the Electronic Medical Record System.  This connection includes hospitals, dentist practices and all other medical provision of services. The system consists of files containing all medical records of every patient ever treated. The files are stored full with medical data in a social health network, as you will. This may sound a kind of creepy; chatting online on Facebook with the gynecologist, or planning for an appointment with the physiotherapist over Twitter by using an IPod, this idea my seem awkward, even surreal. The invitations to such a network has been send months ago in the postal mailbox at home. They came in disguise of a appeal by the government to join in. Every person who wishes not to connect is free to sign the objection form.


The Electronic Medical Record System is part of the aim of the Dutch Pubic Health cabinet to withdraw casualties by default of miscommunications by medical staff and patients.  Therefore officials designed a database system based on the already existing set ups. To connected those systems with each other, a national linking system is needed to implement. Implementation of an open linking system of different medical services provides open access to all medical records included to all of the connected systems. Facilitating such an implementation of linking systems in a digital open environment can cause hazards of privacy and control. Therefore a large group of Dutch medical professionals are not at all pleased by the decision of the cabinet obtained by law to retrieve medical data by the Electronic Medical Record System. there objection against the system is based on privacy issues. The problem with this system is that it is put into a distributed network where distributed power relations are executed. With no one in charge there is no one responsible.


Within the dynamics of sovereignty and sociability implicit powers come to gesture. A mostly heard argument here is that citizens have the freedom of choice to withdraw. In Dutch society there is the gesture of an opt-out and an opt-in system. Citizens do not get registered without their explicit permission of registration. The opt-in system applies for the EMR as well for the traffic chip card system and the fingerprint identification in passports. For commercial mail like advertisement leaflets there counts a opt-out system, every mail address receives advertisement mail unless one decides to withdraw itself by putting up a sticker on their mailbox.

In honestly we share

Now I wonder, why in this liberate country, where newborns get registered by birth, where every person shopping in the Rotterdam city center gets followed by camera surveillance, where private data is widely shared by public institutions as well by commercial companies, where everyone on the highway and in public transport is followed. Why o why is there not an opt-out system for organ donor registration, as the argument of ‘nothing to hide’ is so widely spread in this society. Where nobody seems to care that there is no such thing like privacy in this time, as no one minds when their lives are open to see for everyone who is interested. When our bodies are getting dismantled by the systems that harvest all information that there is to know about ourselves while still alive. Why is it than, such a difference still when parts of the human body are shared after ones death to help out a follow citizen in need for your organs?

Someone is watching you

The relevance of the subject of privacy is shown tonight on Dutch television, on the Privacy Theme night (website is in Dutch).  and

Tonight related topics of privacy are being discussed. Privacy issues of identity theft, surveillance, data mining and ethical hacking are addressed to explore our notion of privacy. In the documentary ‘Erasing David’ the story of David Bond is told. Where ‘David Bond lives in one of the most intrusive surveillance states in the world.  He decides to find out how much private companies and the government know about him by putting himself under surveillance and attempting to disappear, a decision that changes his life forever.  Leaving his pregnant wife and young child behind, he is tracked across the database state on a chilling journey that forces him to contemplate the meaning of privacy and the loss of it.”

Please join the discussion and note the fair of Orwell’s fair: someone is watching you

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