Why Do We Need Privacy, Anyway?

When my colleagues and I walk the streets of our cities and talk to people about privacy, a surprising number of them respond that they have no need for it. That’s not just surprising, that’s dangerous.

Damage from mass surveillance is quite a bit like damage from radioactivity. The devastating consequences are only apparent to society as a whole ten, fifteen, maybe twenty years later. Therefore, it is easy to dismiss the dangers of something you can’t see, touch, or smell as you walk in the street – but we know all too well what happens, as we have many blueprints of history and its lessons to fall back on.

Imagine for a moment that somebody was listening in to everything you said on the phone. Would you think twice about what you said? Probably. You’d probably refrain from discussing some things you wanted to keep strictly between the person you were talking to and yourself, and save those discussions for a face-to-face meeting where the other person wasn’t listening in.

Well, the good news is that you don’t have to imagine it: thanks to the revelations of Edward Snowden, we know that everything is wiretapped, at least if it happens to pass by one of the wiretapping points of the NSA/GCHQ network, which you have no way of knowing in advance. While not everything may be picked out for closer analysis, neither were the steamed-open letters in East Germany, and yet people shunned that practice.

In countries where the Data Retention Directive has been implemented, where our mobile phones are turned into governmental tracking devices and every call logged (not its spoken words, but merely that the call took place), slightly over half of the people have hesitated or refrained from making phone calls that could be used against them in the future: psychologists, drug addiction helplines, et cetera. Over half. Not in some far-fetched future scenario; this is what has already happened.

And here’s one key observation of why we need privacy: Because we have a fundamental need to keep some things to ourselves. The alternative to privacy is not being open about our problems and concerns, the alternative is not discussing our concerns at all, as we have already seen from the numbers. Out of fear that our weaknesses, our everyday habits, or just who we were born to be will one day be turned against us.

This is also why we have medical privacy – so that people with problems can get help with those problems, without fear of having their problems turned against them. It should be obvious that it is in society’s greater interest to help its citizens, and yet, a mass surveillance makes this hard or impossible.

The resulting ominous silence is also exactly what history tells us will happen, and that is why the people in the streets shrugging their shoulders are dangerous: most of them assume that since they have no need for privacy, those people also don’t mind new laws that deprive others of theirs. But that, obviously, negates other people’s ability to choose for themselves.

At the end of the day, everybody’s privacy is their own responsibility. The world as we know it has shown that you can trust no one but yourself to keep your secrets safe, and that you probably need a selection of tools and habits to do so.

A secret told, after all, is not a secret anymore. The same thing goes for a secret overheard, or a secret wiretapped.

Rick Falkvinge

About Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. He has a tech entrepreneur background and loves whisky. Read more of his articles on his website.

  • Anonymous

    Amen.

    • Laurel L. Russwurm

      [note to Rick Falkvinge: Clearly I was wrong. Good to see it, and thanks.]

  • Dreadheart

    As one of “those”, I appreciate the warning yet remain steadfast in my beliefs that run parallel with my stance on online “piracy”:
    Don’t disregard the potential good use of a technology just because it can be abused, as everything lies in its application and consequence.
    But we are in an awkward situation regarding surveillance, I must say, where we have the technology to use it but are hindered to use it wisely because of our legal stances on other matters. Yet if utilized by a liberal and transparent government, I believe we could see a different side of the coin – if we as individuals can find the courage to cast away our petty need for “privacy”.

    Keep up the job, we desperately need it these days.

    • Laurel L. Russwurm

      “Yet if utilized by a liberal and transparent daysgovernment, I believe we could see a different side of the coin – if we as individuals can find the courage to cast away our petty need for “privacy”. ~ @ Dreadheart

      Even with a fair transparent government system, there must be oversight, or there will be abuse. I’ve heard it said that if corporations were human, they would be sociopaths. Like corporations, governments are powerful artificial constructs absent ethics or moral code. Both have agendas that may or may not run parallel with yours or mine, as well as being as changeable as socks. This is why laws must be made to constrain government abuses by citizen ansd judicial oversight, and why civil rights must be fought for, over and over again, even in democracy.

      [note to Rick Falkvinge: Great article, but I have a bone to pick with you regarding privacy here on your site. Disqus prevents me from leaving a comment as myself, even if I sign in with one of the listed services, *unless* I give up personal information to Disqus. This is known as a “registration wall” where people are required to pay with the coin of our privacy. Clearly any corporate entity aggregating our personal information is even less accountable than any government doing the same. Although I will be able to leave a comment by typing in my name, I am prevented from sealing it with my own avatar. Perhaps you might consider enabling OAuth or Gravatar signatures.]

  • Death

    If you have a secret, even as harmless as having cheated on your wife, you are vulnerable. If someone untrustworthy holds your secret, they have power over you. To know things you have wished to keep private grants the holder of this information a power to extort. Cons are run daily against the unsuspecting on this premise – get a compromising bit of info, extort. From elderly single ladies to teens, for reasons as diverse as plain greed to desire to bully – all human sins are in on it. And the great surveillance machine is built and run by humans… humans who desire power. Power this machine grants in plenty. Everybody has secrets. And not everybody understands – no secret is worthy of granting someone so much power over you. Rather take the pain and expose the extortion…

    • tetridae

      Exactly. Private secrets… can bring down politicians and businesses alike. Bill Clinton, anyone..? It is a fair bet that the people who have most power in the world are not politicians or even businessmen, but people sitting on information to blackmail others.

  • privacymatters

    There are new tools available to ensure privacy, for instance to secure your phone calls and instant messages, you may use ARTCL 12 application on Android.