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Ethics and privacy

/ 05:16 AM April 06, 2018

My column last Wednesday was about the Data Privacy Act and how it impacts on Filipino culture, where the idea of “privacy” is actually not that well accepted yet. I wrote about how office staff will very casually share private information that they saw on, say, payslips, biodata, even medical records. The sharing is usually done with no ill intentions, but in other cases, there may be an element of malice involved, from simple gossip to a demolition job on someone’s reputation.

The Data Privacy Act was passed in 2012 and is being fully implemented only now. But even before this law, researchers in the natural, social and medical sciences have long been aware of the need to protect privacy. I am taking up this issue because there are instances where you can refuse to give information, or where you can ask how that information will be safeguarded.

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I should mention that all this attention to privacy is a fairly recent development in human history. This concept of privacy crystallized, together with the concept of the individual, around the 18th century in Europe.  Before then, the notion of the individual was weak, subordinate to the community.  Moreover, in feudal societies, including those ruled by monarchs, you only had subjects, the word itself underscoring how disempowered a person was. Only with the rise of notions like individual human rights and democracy could we think of citizens and citizenship.

Communalism wasn’t all that bad. Communal welfare was paramount so people felt they had the “right” to know who was doing what, and with whom (or to whom, smile). We still see that today in the Philippines, sometimes resulting in cultural clashes. Foreign visitors (including balikbayan relatives) complain about how they’re never left alone, with Filipinos worried that something might happen to you or that you might be lonely. The idea that someone can be happy, alone, amazes many Filipinos.

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Now you know why we have so many “uzis,” or people poking into other people’s business. It can be annoying but think, too, of how the sense of community can be useful. Children, the elderly, and the sick were cared for by the entire community. If someone was in need, people came to help, or offered advice.

That’s changing, and sometimes to society’s disadvantage. Kanya-kanya (to each his/her own) takes over from pakikipagkapwa (caring for each other).

We are challenged to keep that pakikipagkapwa even as we allow notions of privacy and confidentiality to develop. I’ve learned the value of privacy from years of doing research, with ethical reviews that have strict questions on privacy before you can proceed.

Aliases

Let’s get down to examples relating to privacy.

The foremost example is the identity of the informants. People giving you information have the right not to have their names divulged. This is particularly important if they are engaged in activities that might get them into trouble with the law—for example, sex work, or, in the context of the ongoing war on drugs, they are using or selling drugs. Research ethics is as strict as that of the confessional: When a person gives you permission to ask him or her questions, it is accompanied by a commitment not to give their identity.

It isn’t easy and what usually happens is that you just tell the informant not to give their real name.  You also store the research information using a code number which you can refer to later for information on age, sex, and other variables, but not the name.  This is anonymity. Logically, the information you store must not have any addresses either. And even with this minimal information, you must have password-protected databases.

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In anthropology, we are even required to change the name of the barangay, the town, even the province where the research is conducted if there is risk that harm might come to the community. This isn’t even about drug use or prostitution. For example, you might discover a town with strong potentials for tourism. You will have to ask the people if they want their town’s name, or the potential tourist attractions, to be named in your report, given that tourism does not always bring benefits to a place.

Privacy is tied to consent. There will be cases where informants want to be named and you are ethically bound to respect that decision, even if you feel it brings risk to them. The point is that you have explained all potential benefits and risks before they decide. This is informed consent, similar to the one given when you ask a person if they are willing to go through a medical procedure, or to participate in a clinical study on a new drug.

Privacy and ethical research can get even more complicated when you are dealing with people who might not be able to give informed consent—minors, the very old, or those mentally incapable. In such cases, consent can be given by a guardian, but only after all the risks and benefits are discussed. Not only that: In recent years, at UP Diliman at least, we have asked students not to have photographs of children in their theses or dissertations if these were taken in situations that might cause them harm, now or in the future.

Easy invasion

In this era of cell phone photos, invasion of privacy becomes all too easy, so researchers have to be conscious about getting permission before taking photos, especially if the photos are going to be posted online or published in a report. This is why many photographs and videos now routinely blur the faces of minors, and even adults taken into police custody because they are considered innocent until proven guilty.

Think of data privacy, too, next time you’re approached by some marketing agent in a mall. You know how irritating it can be when they get your name and phone number then start pestering you every day. Even worse, your information might end up in other marketing databases.

Yes, data can be bought and sold, and make for good business. Which is why Google and Facebook are in trouble now for having provided sensitive personal information to research groups like Cambridge Analytica, which used the data to “profile” people—in their case, finding out if a particular sex, or age, or religious affiliation, correlated with political views. All that they can extract from what you do on the internet—the sites you visit, the types of google searches, and more.

“But I didn’t give my consent,” people have protested.

Well, next time, read all the terms and conditions before signing up for some internet service.

We’re getting strict now in the Philippines with the Data Privacy Act, and I anticipate that the cultural revolution here will not be too difficult. Ironically, out of a sense of pakikipagkapwa, a respect for other people, we will learn about and accept privacy as a norm. The problem now is getting those corporate digital predators like Facebook to do the same.

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