Reclaiming the right to privacy

Two studies into the nature of privacy form part of the London International Documentary Festival's

If you walk through the Barbican main entrance and follow the steps down to the mezzanine floor in one of the corners of the room you'll see against the venue's sparse interior architecture an incongruous sight - three walls made up to resemble a typical family home. Whilst only two of the walls have fake doors all three of them are adorned in framed images. There are also two green cushioned chairs and a coffee table with a book that has a plain black cover. Open it on the first page you will see hand-written the words "WHAT IS PRIVACY?" If you continue over the next few pages you'll find a range of answers written down by visitors to the exhibition.

That there is a plurality of definitions of this concept is the inescapable conclusion one gets after visiting this exhibition and watching the film Article 12, which together made up a special focus on the nature of privacy as part of the London International Documentary Festival's opening weekend.

The exhibition described above is called Privacy, but from the images on the walls its creator Juan Manuel Biain doesn't answer the question he set the viewers in the black book. Instead, he shows how privacy can be lost. The majority of images in the frames on the exhibition walls are, for example, pictures of tools that are used in to erode our privacy such as CCTV cameras.

That the pictures appear in an exhibition space designed to look like the one place people feel their privacy should be preserved - the home - gives them veritas. Even more effective, however, is that the images are chosen to alter the role of the viewer. At one point, looking at the framed picture of a camera, the device was staring straight back at me. I was being watched. In the next I was viewing at an image of female figure silhouetted against a dimly lit bedroom window curtain. I was now the watcher. In today's increasingly digital world the transformation between these roles is that easy.

The exhibition's accompanying piece -a documentary exploring the erosion of privacy enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 - is also created by Biain. Similarly, it portrays the negative and oppressive forces that intrude on our privacy. In attempting to understand what privacy is and how it is encroached upon the documentary links the erosion of article 12 to the growth of laws that have promoted national state security over individual rights since the 9/11 attacks and 7/7 bombings. Ironically, it is London which is held up in the film as being the most intrusive city in the world.

Formed against a backdrop of decades of turmoil caused by totalitarian regimes, article 12 created a legal notion of privacy that is based on opposition to totalitarianism. As if to assuage any doubts that it is this notion of privacy that is the director's focus the penultimate scene of the documentary blazes the words "REMEMBER ARTICLE 12" across the cinema screen.

But this is only part of the story. During the Q&A session that followed the film many more complex issues surrounding the concept were discussed. The fact, for example, that privacy is now not only a real world phenomenon but also a digital one. So too the role of corporations and their unprecedented ability to collate, share and use data about our private lives. But most importantly perhaps, is the role of ourselves not just as complicit in this process but as over eager to partake in the real and especially digital world that come into direct conflict with traditional definitions of privacy as defined in article 12.

Ticket and program information for the London International Documentary Festival can be found at: http://www.lidf.co.uk/

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.