Privacy and Robo-ethics

Privacy and Roboethics – My Internship at TILT – by Lisa van Dongen

Privacy is dead” if you believe Mark Zuckerberg. He was talking about the information-sharing era we now live in, in which we put our personal lives online. This comment has bugged me for quite some time. Then along came this internship opportunity at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society, in which I was asked to explore the notion of ‘privacy beyond the screen’ in the smart(er) world. My supervisor, dr. Tjerk Timan, told me “to just do something interesting”. Admittedly, such a blanket assignment was scary, but it turned out to be very exciting once I figured out what I wanted to do.

Even if you are not remotely interested in privacy, you cannot help but being fascinated by the rapidly advancing developments in technology, in particular with all those intelligent and smart devices making it into our homes, our offices, and even just into the pockets of our pair of pants. It seems everything is getting smart these days but us. So, what does that mean for us, for our autonomy and privacy, and our trust in our (smart) environment? This internship allowed me to explore this question, and I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to write a paper on my findings. I set out to demonstrate that data protection is not the same as privacy, and that more attention for the protection of other objects of privacy is imperative for the near future, by exploring the notion of ‘privacy beyond the screen’, and demonstrating both the overlap and distinctness of the different objects of privacy protection and their objectives with real-life examples.

One of my favourite quotes I came across in my research was that “technological developments [so far] never intended to change the world or society, but rather did so as a side effect” (Langheinrich and Mattern, 2002), “in contrast, the vision of Ubiquitous Computing explicitly aims at transforming the world” (Bohn et al., 2004 & 2005).[1] It is in the light of this statement that I came to the conclusion that privacy is not dead; it has evolved and needs to evolve further to address the changes in our environment. I found that privacy, autonomy and trust are connected, and that the Internet of Things will not be able to succeed if human operators cannot – to some degree – understand and control the processes of intelligent and smart objects. Moreover, reducing it to data protection would actually endanger the further development and success of the smart world.

During the two months of this internship, I have been able to better my research skills, and it has pushed me to think outside of the box, and to just trust myself and write. In addition, this internship has not only provided me with the opportunity to write a paper on such an exhilarating subject, but I was given the chance to do so for a great research team that is conducting a major research project on privacy spaces. To be able to see first-hand what happens inside research project teams, and all the challenges that come with such projects really was a privilege for any student who wishes to pursue a career as academic in law. Even though it was hard work, I enjoyed every minute of it.




[1] Langheinrich and Mattern, 2002; and Bohn et al., 2004 & 2005, as cited in Röcker, C. (2010). Social and Technological Concerns Associated with the Usage of Ubiquitous Computing Technologies. Issues in Information Systems 11:1, p. 61. Retrieved from