When we talk of privacy online, it is easy to narrow the discussion to something that can be described as “anti-wiretapping”. But privacy is a much more diverse and important concept than that. In general, we can talk of seven different privacies, each important to our civil liberties from different angles.
There are seven distinct important types of privacies. We speak of privacy of body, correspondence, data, finance, identity, location, and territory. Let’s take a look at each of these.
The Privacy of Body means that your body is your own, and governmental agents may not examine or invade it without your consent. The word “invade” here doesn’t imply sexual violence, it’s much more mundane than that – forcibly taking a blood sample by puncturing your skin, for example, is a clear invasion of your body. Examining your bloodstream for undesired substances is also an example of a violation of your right to privacy of body. By extension, your thoughts and emotions are also part of the privacy of body before they are expressed to somebody, while you are just thinking and feeling them.
Privacy of Correspondence is what we usually talk about when we discuss privacy online. The analog sealed letter is a centuries-old right that corporations and politicians are eroding as we are making the jump to digital communications, and we need to defend it. Privacy of correspondence means two things: one, that you have an absolute right to communicate in private with whomever you choose, without anybody eavesdropping without your consent, and two, that your choice of whom to communicate with – be it a person or a machine like Wikipedia – is equally private.
Privacy of Data is related to the jump to digital. It’s the privacy of your diary in your home that isn’t communicated to anybody. Your photos, your documents, your data. Today, computers have very little protection in law against search and seizure, despite the fact that they are far more private than a teenager’s paper diary. This needs to be addressed. In the meantime, we are protecting ourselves with full-disk encryption utilities such as TrueCrypt and various flavors of GNU/Linux that have such full-disk encryption out of the box.
An interesting renaissance is on the way for Privacy of Finance, as bitcoin continues to take hold. It used to be that bank secrecy meant that nobody – not even the government – was allowed insight into your personal finances: wealth, debt, expenditure, income. Gradually, said government changed those laws to give themselves complete access not just to look into your economy, but also to forcibly change it at will – seize taxes owed, for example, without any action on your part. Bitcoin technology holds a promise to restore the bank secrecy to what it was, but without any assistance (or consent, for that matter) from banks or the government.
Often overlooked, our Privacy of Identity is our right to go about our daily lives anonymously – the absence of a “papers, please” society. While we’ve seen political demands for more and stronger ID cards, and air travel pretend-security is gradually poisoning this privacy, one of the strongest threats to this privacy is another: it is the proliferation of CCTV cameras that create a network of cameras, that when taken together, is essentially capable of recording our every outdoor footstep from our front door.
Related to CCTVs, our Privacy of Location is the right for us to be wherever we want without any part of the government knowing about it. This privacy has essentially been eliminated post-2001 as our mobile phones were turned into governmental tracking devices via data retention laws, and we need to take this privacy back. (For a chilling illustration of what it looks like when your every move is recorded, check the Malte Spitz experiment.)
Finally, our Privacy of Territory is our right to not have our home invaded by governmental force. This extends beyond our home, though – we take a little part of our territory with us as we walk about and move around. Pockets, handbags, the contents of our car – are all part of the privacy of territory.
In a healthy society, these seven privacies may only be violated by dedicated law enforcement units on prior and individual suspicion of an identified and serious crime. Easily put, this means that blanket wiretapping is a blanket violation of rights. Importantly, this also means that it’s not everybody’s job to do the police’s work for them, just because they’re on a public paycheck.
In the future, it may be necessary to expand this list – for example, the privacies of thought and of emotion are currently seen as parts of the privacy of your body. But if emotion readers – or just stress readers, which aren’t that far off – become commonplace, it may be necessary to fight for privacy on more fronts than these seven.
But until then, it’s important to keep reminding ourselves that all these seven privacies are important, and we need to fight for each of them, every day.