In amongst the surreal sci-fi and Greek myth references in Boris Johnson's speech to the UNGA yesterday Johnson may have made an important point about the difficulties we have keeping our thoughts secret from Google. But what is needed to address that problem is not flowery rhetoric but effective law and regulation to implement our international obligations.
Unlike the right to privacy, the right to freedom of thought is protected absolutely in international human rights law and, domestically, by the Human Rights Act. This means that any interference with our ability to think freely in the privacy of our own minds is unlawful. This includes attempts to extract our thoughts against our will, to manipulate our thoughts, or to penalise us for our thoughts. There is an obligation on governments both to respect this right and to protect it from the actions of others, including companies like Google. But in practice, very little has been done to protect our right to freedom of thought either as consumers or as citizens.
Data protection and privacy are important protections, but the risks posed by "surveillance capitalism" and the use of "behavioural micro-targeting" in politics go to the heart of human autonomy and the foundations of democracy. There is an urgent need for Government to address this issue with clear laws and regulations. As the Supreme Court showed us yesterday, we need the law to protect our democracy and nobody is above it.
“You may keep secrets from your friends, from your parents, your children, your doctor – even your personal trainer – but it takes real effort to conceal your thoughts from Google.”