It’s time to recognise the digital integrity of human beings

Alexis Roussel & Grégoire Barbey

Data protection as we have known it for the past 25 years has failed. Data protection offices haven’t seen their financial means really evolve when the amount of personal data being recorded and shared skyrocketed. Regulation itself cannot efficiently protect the interests of individuals. This data is mistakenly defined as the “new oil of the 21st century”. The actual paradigm is more comparable to a form of slavery. But we should first agree on the terms. Personal data has value because it contains informations about a human being.

Your digital existence does not depend anymore on your will alone. Even if you are not registered on a social network, the mere fact that your relatives are using the social network entails that the social network is most probably aware of your existence. Analysis of personal data is so refined that an individual profile can be created without the targeted person having willingly provided any information. It only takes one person to casually share their address book with a social network to trigger the shadow profile creation process. This is not science-fiction anymore.

We even witness the emergence of generations that have a digital existence before they are actually born. Sharing ultrasound pictures of unborn babies is now a trend. You merely need to mention a pregnancy on a social network for this human being to digitally exist. Whether we like it or not, a part of our life is digital. This is why personal data cannot simply be an object that can be owned by someone else. Personal data is part of our individuality, it defines us, tells so much about us. “We” are our personal data and this personal data is “us”.

If human beings enjoy a digital existence, we must consider that their right to integrity also expands to the digital dimension. If there is a right to physical integrity and to mental integrity, there must be a right to digital integrity. Exploiting someone’s personal data must be considered a violation of their digital integrity. Of course, some of these violations are inevitable. A human being necessarily has social interactions. All violations to someone’s digital integrity cannot be avoided. But these violations should be exceptional and given explicit consent to. It will be up to society as a whole to define what is acceptable or not. Recognising digital integrity of human beings is, simply put, expanding the reach of fundamental rights to the digital realm.

States and corporations always have good arguments to justify exploiting personal data and violating an individual’s digital integrity. Too often, personal data processing is being used to influence consumer behaviour or to feed massive surveillance and repression schemes. The digital revolution should benefit humanity as a whole. It should not be a way for a privileged few to benefit from and extract most of its profits. We are at the dawn of a new era. It is still possible to make the decisions that will make these innovations respect individual rights and autonomy. Recognising and protecting our right to digital integrity is an important first step to make sure that human beings are not the subject of technology. This is definitely a humanistic battle.

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