Remember the former Springbok who had to remove cameras from his home? We need to treat our digital privacy the same

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 A woman scans her face using a facial recognition system on a smartphone
A woman scans her face using a facial recognition system on a smartphone

Social media platforms collect and use our information in ways that are veiled to us

Former Springbok and winner of the Webb Ellis trophy in 1995, Hannes Strydom, was reported to have installed R90 000 worth of surveillance cameras inside the home he shares with his estranged wife.

This was done without consulting her and in her absence.

He was subsequently ordered, by the law, to take the equipment down.

There are ample security features in the home already, said his wife, Nikolie Strydom, who lives at the opposite end of the building they share.

She approached the Pretoria High Court.

Her complaint? The sole purpose of the newly installed cameras was to spy on her.

I may not be privy to the dynamics of their relationship, but I do believe she was justified in her dissatisfaction with the “beefed-up security”.

Why? Two words: scopophilia and power.

Simply put, scopophilia is voyeurism. It is stated that Nikolie had concerns of her body being consumed visually by her husband or others while in her underwear, or while sunbathing in the sun by the pool.

Indeed, Hannes Strydom was one up on Nikolie until he took the cameras down.

They fed footage of her to Strydom’s phone and a monitor in his room, as well as equipment monitored by security personnel.

He could see most of the details of Nikolie’s everyday life; she could see none of his in the same way.

When a voyeuristic gaze occurs, there is power wielded by the surreptitious watcher. The subject assumes that power only if they are aware of the watcher and approve of the gaze.

How would you personally feel being watched every second of every day by someone you are not able to watch back, and with whom you have a potentially contentious relationship?

Would you be able to live your normal life in a free manner, knowing they were continually collecting information about you in your most private and human moments, waiting to use it one day?

Was Nikolie Strydom wrong for harbouring concern over the cameras? The court clearly didn’t think so.

If the equipment were allowed to remain, it would have, hypothetically speaking, given her husband the opportunity to expose unfavourable behaviour on her part.

This is not to say she is necessarily given to such behaviour.

But she is human. And in collecting footage of her over time, Strydom could have created a repository from which to sift for faults and imperfections, until he found whatever might have been of use to him, say, in their divorce proceedings.

As far as individuals in society go, we are no different from Nikolie. As a citizen you are, by default, married to the state and its various government institutions.

In the same vein, you are wed to the multiplicity of corporations (national and multinational) on which some of your daily aspects of life depend.

It is documented that both the government and corporations spy on you and me.

They do not install cameras in our homes, instead we buy them in the form of smartphones that record nearly all the details of our lives, through hardware: Camera lenses, microphones, as well as our constant link to cellphone towers; or through software: servers, search engines, digital platforms and applications.

The devices in our pockets are constantly talking, alerting others about our lives and our current actions, such that if we experience something like a foot injury, for instance, we get advertisements about shoes or foot therapy.

And this all seems very useful if you accept that this information is collected, in part, for your convenience.

But there is the other side of that reality. Information is also collected in bulk over time.

All the information recorded about you can then be used against you one day, should the government or corporations need to use it.

Murray Hunter, researcher and analyst at Right2Know Campaign, agrees with the following.

People are very lax or unknowledgeable when it comes to the collection of their personal and private data.

Any amount of hackers could be looking in on us at any one time.

But it is social media platforms, such as Facebook, Google, YouTube and the third parties related to them, that collect and use our information in ways that are veiled to us.

He agrees that this information can be used to undermine our ability to govern ourselves as citizens.

“But I’m a good citizen, and I have no problem with the government,” you might say.

This might be true until you are a student who decides fees must fall; or you are a member of civil society who feels strongly about a particular matter of public interest and find yourself at loggerheads with the government.

For example, the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (Rica), was a legal (and now no longer legal) means through which the government could spy on activists or investigative journalists for corrupt reasons.

Through it, journalist Sam Sole had his communications targeted by state surveillance.

What if you become a whistle-blower? What then?

Yet we carry on with our phones, leaving everything that we are on them for those with the power to access it to see it and keep it on record.

If we were in a situation like Nikolie we would probably fight it in the same way she did.

Yet we are quite content to hold on to our phones which do basically the same thing that Hannes Strydom was doing.

We are in the game of our lives when it comes to privacy and the fact that it never seems to cross our minds is boggling to me.

In this serious game of life, it is the equivalent of dropping the ball with a Springbok-like rush defence ready to pounce on you and seize the advantage.

The situation is tighter than a Faf du Plessis Speedo.

What will it take for society to realise the jeopardy we are in; what will it take for individuals to unite and act as a collective?

In other words: While you might not know what to do now, does your digital privacy matter enough for you to find out?

Litha Hermanus is author of The Eyes of the Naked, a political and psychological novel and a freelance writer

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