It’s surely time to ask whether we’ve got the balance right between openness and protection.


“I guess seeing your passwords on someone else’s computer screen generates some strong feelings,” cyber expert Markus Alkio said to me, as I stared at the results of what he’d managed to dig up.

He was right. After two weeks of having my personal information raked over by researchers tasked with digging out as much as possible, I was indeed bewildered by just how much of what I’d thought was private turned out to be nothing of the sort.

Confidential medical information, my wedding photos, my all-important Finnish social security number, and now the passwords for my email and social media accounts – more than enough information to cause serious harm in the wrong hands – had all been accessed with relative ease.

But there in Markus’ office it also hit me that I now understood first hand why this distant thing called data protection, so often maligned as the method of choice for obstructive bureaucrats, urgently needs to be taken more seriously.

It’s surely time to ask whether we’ve got the balance right between openness and protection.
Researching for my Eyewitness documentary, I met and heard from dozens of normal people whose data privacy has been infringed – sometimes with damaging consequences.

One woman went through the immeasurable tragedy of losing her newborn twins, only to face an onslaught of phone calls and junk mail from direct marketers who’d found out she’d given birth, and wanted to sell her baby-related stuff.

Another wrote that her boyfriend’s ex – a public official – had looked up information about her welfare benefits, and then handed it to her boyfriend.

Or there were the many people whose leaked social security numbers were repeatedly used by criminals to buy expensive goods online – some of whom were told by authorities there was nothing they could do to stop it being used over and over again.

One of the things I most admire about Finnish society is how well it functions based on trust. But when, as I heard about, abusers can regularly exploit that trust to fool officials into giving out a vulnerable ex-partner’s secret address, it’s surely time to ask whether we’ve got the balance right between openness and protection.

Making this programme I also realised Finland has another great strength – its public assertion that it doesn’t spy on citizens’ private communications, unlike, for instance, the US, UK and Sweden. That’s helped attract internet giants like Google, Microsoft and Ruusian Yandex to locate their servers here, bringing with them hundreds of millions in investment.

The irony is that the high levels of trust in authority here mean many people seem to feel, like I did, that they’ve nothing to lose from giving into the Defence Ministry’s current call for mass snooping powers on all of our communications.

Aside from the dent to Finland’s economy that opponents to the bill argue the new powers would bring, there is a far more important principle at stake here – every citizen’s right to a private life.

One expert told me that whenever someone tells him “I’ve got nothing to hide,” he asks if he can read their internet search history.

I have seen how easily my passwords ended up on someone else’s screen.
No-one ever agrees to it – and rightly so. Can you honestly say you’ve never written a message, clicked a link or googled something that, if it were made public in the wrong way under the wrong circumstances, might humiliate or even incriminate you?

At a time when parts of the government want us to give up this fundamental civil liberty, we have to ask ourselves whether relinquishing this right to privacy will really make us safer. After all, once it’s gone, we nor our children will ever get it back.

Personally, after seeing how easily my passwords ended up on someone else’s screen, I can now say that any semblance of privacy we can still hold on to is something that must be valued, and must be defended.