Privacy isn't dead and it's not about what you have to hide

One of the responses to revelations of NSA and the UK’s GCHQ surveillance of our data is a throwback to that idea that privacy is dead and we should “get over it” and adapt to a world of almost radical publicity. Coupled with this position is the notion that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from increasing encroachment on your privacy. Both arguments are either the product of particularly narrow perceptions of privacy or a self-serving business model.

To begin to understand the fallacies underpinning these arguments, read Professor Daniel Solove’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Why Privacy Matters Even If You Have ‘Nothing To Hide’” which includes the following:

To describe the problems created by the collection and use of personal data, many commentators use a metaphor based on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell depicted a harrowing totalitarian society ruled by a government called Big Brother that watches its citizens obsessively and demands strict discipline. The Orwell metaphor, which focuses on the harms of surveillance (such as inhibition and social control), might be apt to describe government monitoring of citizens. But much of the data gathered in computer databases, such as one’s race, birth date, gender, address, or marital status, isn’t particularly sensitive. Many people don’t care about concealing the hotels they stay at, the cars they own, or the kind of beverages they drink. Frequently, though not always, people wouldn’t be inhibited or embarrassed if others knew this information.

Another metaphor better captures the problems: Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Kafka’s novel centers around a man who is arrested but not informed why. He desperately tries to find out what triggered his arrest and what’s in store for him. He finds out that a mysterious court system has a dossier on him and is investigating him, but he’s unable to learn much more. The Trial depicts a bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes that uses people’s information to make important decisions about them, yet denies the people the ability to participate in how their information is used.

The problems portrayed by the Kafkaesque metaphor are of a different sort than the problems caused by surveillance. They often do not result in inhibition. Instead they are problems of information processing—the storage, use, or analysis of data—rather than of information collection. They affect the power relationships between people and the institutions of the modern state. They not only frustrate the individual by creating a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, but also affect social structure by altering the kind of relationships people have with the institutions that make important decisions about their lives.

Choosing to live a life of radical publicity where anyone can view almost any aspect of your life may be a choice for some (although I suspect even the most radically transparent people still have some private space) but it shouldn’t be a lifestyle forced on anyone, especially by inherently paranoid, suspicious and secretive government agencies who are collecting data for the purpose of identifying what they deem to be unacceptable behaviours and trends.

One of the fundamental components of the right to privacy is the right to the right to “informational self-determination”. This has been recognised by our Constitutional Court and is the central issue Solove describes in his overview of Kafka’s book. What the NSA, GCHQ and other agencies are doing is utterly disregarding our entitlement to keep aspects of our lives secret as well as our right to have some measure of control over how our personal information and data is used, in part to ensure that it is processed bearing in mind the appropriate context.

Simply accepting that “privacy is dead” is foolish. It isn’t and it shouldn’t be. It is certainly injured by our governments’ callous disregard for it and utter failure to develop mechanisms to safeguard our security without sacrificing our right to privacy and dignity in the process. We may be heading towards a world of radical transparency, in some respects at least, but that goes both ways.

Similarly, the notion that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from this sort of surveillance (the same thing applies to commercial entities) is, quite frankly, immature and the product of a total failure to appreciate the complexities of what the right to privacy entails in the first place.

This is one of those things to resist, not just throw up your hands and try figure out how to live in a glass house with no curtains.





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