Why Does Privacy Matter?

This is the second article in the series “Technology and Our Rights: Safeguarding Liberty in the Digital Age”.

In the previous article in the Technology and Our Rights series, the current state of our online rights, security and privacy was discussed. With the ongoing court battle between Apple and the FBI it has never been more important to look at why privacy in the digital age matters.

In this article, we will look to answer a simple question: Why does privacy matter?

There is an experience which almost everyone has exclusively had, whether it is singing to an embarrassing song or dancing wildly, only to realise there was someone watching. The result being that person immediately ceases that activity due to embarrassment and shame.

While seemingly harmless, this life situation is symbolic of the core debate in this series which centres on the understanding that we are being watched, monitored and analysed. The Internet, once a tool of free expression, information and communication, is now an environment of mass surveillance.

Every day we as individuals and as a society make decisions which protect certain pieces of information. When we talk to our partners, friends, family, doctors or lawyers, we take an active step to hide information from others.

For those who claim to accept sacrificing online privacy through the ideology of “nothing to Hide, nothing to fear”, their actions and actions of their fellow citizens, disclaim this statement profoundly.

Here are some reasons why privacy matters, in the face of such claims:

  1. Privacy is Essential to Human Nature

Privacy is an integral part of human nature, biology and integral to our evolution. Whatever your philosophical view on humans as unique entities in the world, privacy is inherent within our programming.

Yes, it is true that we also desire social connection, empathy and relationships, which is why we are so willing to share information about ourselves on social networks. We as humans want to know what others are doing, saying and thinking.

Equally, we crave privacy, because we all have things to hide. We all have information that we are willing to tell our partners, friends and family but strictly unwilling to let anyone else knows about them. Every day, we make decisions about pieces of information we keep private and those we allow public.

Privacy matters because it provides a universal rule that allows people to keep information private without being branded, under the “nothing to hide” ideology, as bad people, or even terrorists and criminals.

  1. Privacy is Essential to Human Behaviour

There have been multi-disciplinary studies which show that surveillance breeds conformity. When people know they are being watched, the range of behaviour and actions chosen to express oneself, is automatically and severely reduced.

The behaviour that is shown is consequently more compliant to social norms and those which pose no harm to the power of those exercising mass surveillance. Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer and journalist, who published the NSA surveillance documents provided by Edward Snowden in 2013, has suggested that “Human shame is a powerful motivator, as is the desire to avoid it”.

Having the knowledge that you are being watched creates behaviour which does not evolve from human agency but is the result of the pressure to conform to socially accepted forms of thinking and action.

In the digital age, with companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google becoming dominant service providers, privacy is has never been so important. Having the freedom and assurance that what you search for, or what you buy or who you talk to, is private, ensures that people do not abandon their intellectual curiosity or desires.

  1. Privacy is essential to Accountability.

Not only from a scientific or philosophical standpoint, does privacy matter, but also a practical and political one. Within our Western, democratic political and social system, privacy is theoretically vital to its functioning.

Some of the fundamental moving parts of democracy like free and fair elections are underpinned by the requirement of privacy.

If we take the works of Jeremy Bentham and Michael Foucault, both who understood and extended the idea that mass surveillance, as the antithesis to privacy, had become the tool of Western democracies for controlling and subverting their populations. In a society without privacy, the subtle nature of surveillance becomes a tool for abandoning privacy and increasing the power of those in power, a tool which is more effective than a physical police state to enforce compliance.

People who believe in the “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear” ideology, commonly create a binary world in which there a good people who have nothing to hide. On the other side there are bad people, people who plotting attacks and engage in crime.

Privacy therefore stops the government creating their own expanded definition of “bad people” from including anyone who poses a challenge to their authority, and disables society from enforcing that through social norms and unflinching support for the government, as in the case of Edward Snowden.

As Foucault said, ““The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent”.

  1. Privacy is essential to identity.

Privacy is essential to how we develop in society. Many students reading this are in the formative years of their lives, where decisions made, people met and ideas discussed will shape the way they think and live their lives.

If we as students and as civilians, are willing to abandon privacy, especially online privacy, where a much of our identity resides, then you are accepting that you cannot develop or change. You are accepting a form of freedom which is only allowed if you follow a certain behaviour and identity. You are accepting a mandate that those who have different ideas, different identities, contrary to those who exercise mass surveillance, are dissidents, trouble makers or “bad people”.

Even if you are person who is against that dissident behaviour or you are not that person right now, you have to accept that there are other people in the world who do form and will form in the future alternative views which challenges those at the helm of these mass surveillance programmes. These people therefore deserve to have the freedom and privacy to behave in accordance to their own agency.

Privacy has been discussed in fairly philosophical terms here, but in the digital environment, as in the physical and intellectual, mass surveillance has been proven to shape our behaviour, sometimes without us even knowing it.

Privacy is important to us because it provides the freedom and safeguarded space for us as free human agents to discuss ideas, to express ourselves and to create things, which are not only important to the internet and the future of technology, but also fundamental to human nature.


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