What’s Privacy Good For, Anyway?
“I’ve got nothing to hide, so I’ve got nothing to worry about.”
If you talk about privacy to your circle of friends, how many of them are going to respond more or less exactly that?
That sentence is, unfortunately, rather common. It’s also one of the most dangerously ignorant attitudes toward privacy today. It assumes that your particular habits – normal everyday habits that hurt nobody – aren’t going to be outlawed by the next parliament for no good reason. It assumes that you are 100% law-abiding, even by the smallest stupid laws, which you are not (nobody is). It assumes that you aren’t doing anything at all that could be construed as something else by an adversary looking for patterns that deviate from anything ordinary.
There are many things we do every day that would cause trouble for us if the wrong person used it against us. This is the case for everybody. That’s why we have this concept of privacy. It’s a safeguard that the small infractions we do every day – jaywalking, speeding a little to keep with the traffic flow, just making society work with its all written and unwritten rules, that all those small infractions are regularly ignored. (The written and unwritten rulesets tend to contradict each other to no small degree.)
Most of the things that could cause trouble for us in the wrong hands aren’t even illegal, just taboo in one form of another. Imagine a British politician having any form of sex, for instance, that came to public knowledge through whatever mechanism. Natural as it is for every person – no, every creature of every species on the planet, it would still kill that politician’s career, due to unwritten rules.
There’s a reason the NSA is gathering tons of communications with the explicit goal of finding something to discredit undesirable and troublesome individuals.
Did you ever do something that was the least troublesome for anybody in power? No? Somebody richer than you, somebody more influential? Of course you did. Everybody does. To assure that this keeps happening, our checks and balances lay out a clear framework that is supposed to make people equal before the law. Mass surveillance kills that principle and puts might ahead of right.
This conflict between written and unwritten laws, by the way, isn’t exploitable just by people in power. There’s a beautiful form of labor conflict in South America called strike to rule, where workers insist on following every single written rule. Every single time, it grinds production to a halt. When bus drivers in a major city – possibly Buenos Aires – went on strike, they decided to follow every single traffic rule. The entire city got gridlocked in a heartbeat.
We need to be aware that there is a clear and present conflict between written laws and unwritten rules that make society tick, and that we’re normally expected to let the latter take precedence over the former. But with mass surveillance that erodes privacy, you can be held accountable for breaching either ruleset – which you must necessarily do as they conflict.
This is how selective enforcement comes into play. As in, selective law enforcement. When you have so much data on everybody, and know that everybody is breaking the law or the rules on a daily if not hourly basis, then that shifts priorities dramatically.
At that point, law enforcement shifts its operations from punishing troublesome actions to punishing troublesome individuals.
This is why privacy is important.
Freedom of speech isn’t just the freedom to state any opinion or observation you like. It’s the ability to state any opinion or observation without fear of repercussion for doing so. That’s a much, much stronger freedom, and is critical for keeping power in check.
If you lay out the case for privacy like this to your friends, odds are that they’ll respond with something completely different than the “I have nothing to hide” cliché. If they still don’t get the picture, ask them if they lock the door behind them when they go to the restroom, and the following conversation is likely to take place:
— Of course I lock the door when I go to the restroom. Doesn’t everybody?
— So what do you have to hide in there? What laws are you breaking?
— What? None! I just want some privacy, I think I have a right to that!
Then watch the penny drop, in most cases.