The Privacy Enigma

| Niels ter Meer

Privacy seems to be quite the enigma for some at the UT. Some just do whatever they want, without any regards for what those whose data they process might want, thinks student columnist Niels ter Meer.


For some at the UT, be it employees or students, the concept of privacy is clearly undecipherable. It’s often seen as an obstacle in their path, something abstract to slow down their work; others don’t even seem to notice that it’s supposed to be ‘in their way’. I have many examples of what a disaster it can be: think of a teaching assistant — who is now a board member — just gossiping about students, just merrily scrolling through the spreadsheet of their grades; the alumni network deferring to the vaguest privacy policy to justify their processing; the whole online proctoring deal — what have you.

But I’ll tell you the one that exemplifies this hostile stance towards privacy the most. I once told my association that it was not okay to make a list of minors for the drinking basement, which they were making because that was ‘easier’ than checking IDs. I wrote a whole memo explaining that there is no good reason to do this; after all, the law requires that you check IDs. But what do I see a couple years later? That they’re still doing it, but now to make the ‘bar personnel more aware of minors’.

Personally, I think if you need to be reminded that minors exist that immediately disqualifies you as a bartender, but besides that, instead of thinking hard about whether they really needed to — whether the list was necessary — they rationalized a vague reason out of thin air to do what they already wanted to do. Maybe they drank a bit too much when they came up with this?

You might say that it’s just a minor list of minors, what could the harm be? So let’s pose a hypothetical that those definitely not alcoholic students might understand. What if, in exchange for allowing bars on campus, the university kept track of everyone’s alcohol consumption, and put it — emphasised — on your diploma. ‘Consumed, during the course of the fulfilment of this degree, enough alcohol to qualify them as a binge drinker and/or alcoholic’. After all, wouldn’t it be legitimate that the university made potential employers ‘more aware’ of your attitude? Ah, now you want a say who wants to know what about you, don’t you?

Privacy is not about keeping everything a secret. Clearly I’m privacy conscious, yet I still have my full name, face, and opinions plastered on the internet every other week. Instead, it is about the controlled release of what people know about you, and in doing so, allowing yourself to be put in context, to shape your story — for you to be you. For that to happen, you need to be able to decide what is important to you, and not to have that choice taken away from you. It is about a lot of things, but at its core it’s about deference and respect towards others — it’s about empathy.

And if you, after all this, you still want to do whatever, with some vague and probably unlawful reason, just because it makes your life easier, or because you want to gossip, or whatever — I think you’re an unempathic jerk, and I hope one day the data protection authority will finally rain finey hell down upon you. But I also hope you’ll one day find the key to this enigma.

Stay tuned

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