Beyond freedom of thought: ensuring the privacy of the mind

The privacy of the mind. Man in a gray shirt looking at a city buildings during daytime

The plethora of declarations about protecting rights amid the onslaught of new technology and the mass harvesting and processing of personal information, part of the big data phenomena (for example, the Spanish Charter of Digital Rights, the Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles put forward by the European Commission, and others from the Council of Europe), overlooks something that George Orwell had already foreseen in 1984, when he introduced the notion of what he called ‘thoughtcrime’: the controlling not of freedom of expression, not even freedom of thought, but the privacy of such thought, the very process of thinking. It is something that can already be ascertained, to a limited degree, by means of the data we generate with our digital interactions across a range of devices. But it will become even more feasible as mind-control technologies develop and become more intrusive. Controlling the minds of their citizens will be possible not only for autocratic regimes but also democracies and corporations. Some time ago the present author pointed out that Google is the closest thing we have to God, in that it knows everything, and is increasingly aware that it knows everything. These technologies already influence our desires, including desires we do not even know that we have. Very soon it will be much more.

This set of issues involves the new neuroscience and the new neuro-rights that must be designed and enshrined before it is too late. As the human rights lawyer Susie Alegre argues in her comprehensive book Freedom to Think: The Long Struggle to Liberate Our Minds (2022), ‘without freedom of thought or opinion, we have no humanity, and we have no democracy’. ‘Making these rights real’, she adds, ‘requires three things: 1. The ability to keep your thoughts private; 2. Freedom from manipulation of your thoughts; 3. That nobody can be punished for their thoughts’. It is worth recalling that some religions and political systems categorise bad thoughts, whether held individually or collectively, as sin or its equivalent.

Privacy of the mind, privacy of thought and freedom of thought go well beyond freedom of expression, which is what liberal constitutions and the aforementioned declarations typically safeguard. The drafters of the exemplary US Constitution argued that without freedom of thought there could be no wisdom, although they did not include this in the basic text. Freedom of expression was enshrined in the First Amendment, while the Fourth Amendment dealt with privacy.

The digital revolution has revolutionised many things and will revolutionise many more. We live in what the sociologist Shoshana Zuboff calls ‘the age of surveillance capitalism’. The large corporations in the industry, the big tech firms, are constantly trying to read our minds to monetise the process, to sell us desires or, in the case of governments (not only autocratic ones), to exert control. The ‘social credit’ system operates not only in China; it takes various forms depending on the context. All this is going to expand with new neurodigital technologies. Human beings are starting to become ‘hackable’, as the historian Yuval Noah Harari puts it. Cognitive manipulation technologies, as they are known, are being developed rapidly and in depth. For example, behavioural microtargeting is a technological tool for getting into our minds and changing them. And just around the corner are the possibilities entailed by the metaverse or metaverses and the great transhuman revolution that will be wrought by the immersive combination of the digital and biotech worlds.

Some foresaw this a while ago: 1984 dates from 1949. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is even older, dating back to 1932. Reflecting on his own book (and Orwell’s) in 1958, Huxley realised even then that ‘modern technology has led to the concentration of economic and political power, and to the development of a society controlled (ruthlessly in the totalitarian states, politely and inconspicuously in the democracies) by Big Business and Big Government’. This was before the digital revolution, the Internet and other communication systems such as mobiles, or the emergence of Big Tech, the vast technology companies, predominantly US and Chinese. But, of course, more than 10 years ago Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook was already arguing that privacy was no longer a ‘social norm’.

Some international institutions are fighting against these seemingly unstoppable tendencies. The European Court of Human Rights says that the right to freedom of thought ‘is the foundation of democratic society’. In September 2021 the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, included the right to freedom of thought in her report into the immediate threats to our rights posed by Artificial Intelligence (AI). Meanwhile, the EU seeks to go even further in its proposals, by banning AI from penetrating our minds, something that is picked up on by Alegre, for whom ‘big tech is reading us all everywhere, all the time’, despite the fact that ‘extracting our thoughts without our informed consent is absolutely a violation of our right to freedom of thought’. Moreover, there are consequences for our voting intentions in democracies, as has already become evident from a variety of cases (Cambridge Analytica being one). Particular care should be taken with applying these technologies to justice as a means of judging, or even preventing, crimes.

Respect for the privacy of the mind and freedom of thought –as well as freedom of expression– must be enshrined and strengthened in our democratic systems, and others, not only amid the capacity for control and manipulation wielded by public powers, but also in the face of certain private interests that have grown exponentially, and machines that we no longer understand. A world foreseen both by Orwell and Huxley.


Here, after eight years, these Global Spectator posts draw to a close. I hope, dear reader, they have been of interest to you. After this length of time and at certain stages of life, it is important to be able to explore pastures new. I will continue to write articles and books, both of which require time and concentration. With the Global Spectator, and the analyses and activities with which I hope to have helped chart new terrain, these past eight years at the Elcano Royal Institute have been highly enriching in human respects and highly creative in intellectual respects. I shall continue taking part in some of the Institute’s working groups. Thank you.

Image: Introspection. Man in a gray shirt looking at a city buildings during daytime. Photo: Norbert Kundrak (@trebron).