« Why Privacy is not only for the Guilty

Aleksa Sarai

personal privacy

18 December 2014


“Why are you so worried about <insert name of government spying program here> if you have nothing to hide?”

We have all heard something along the lines of the above question, and I personally feel so enraged by the amount of pure and unadulterated ignorance and apathy that statement contains. If stupidity density was a real metric, the above statement would be so dense that light would bend around it. The implication in such a statement is that anyone who demands or values privacy clearly must “have something to hide”. Of course, that supposition is completely ludicrous and you should trout-slap anyone who tells you something that mind-numbingly stupid. But why is it so stupid to make such a claim?

What is Privacy?

Before we leap into the importance of privacy to an individual, we should probably define what we are talking about here. Most people kind of get what privacy entails: “something something do not spy on me”. But in order to obliterate the above supposition (and obliterate it we shall), we need to have something a little stronger to go on. The most apt definition I have found is this:

privacy: (n.) The state of being free from unsanctioned intrusion, or unwanted attention.

One should note that there is no mention of the word “guilty” in that definition, so we’ve already won the argument! Well, not really. While it’s nice to be able to point to the definition and say “aha!”, usually terms like “privacy” have social implications embedded in their comprehension. So we must dig deeper (but let’s make sure we don’t awaken any beings of shadow and flame :P).

Social Implications of Privacy

Humans are social creatures. At our very heart is the need to interact and find comfort in the presence of others, and to share thoughts and ideas. This is even more true with our highly fast-paced (anti-)social world. Millions of ones and zeros are transmitted over the internet so that someone can post their food choice on Instagram.

In this day and age, the concept of privacy is strongly associated with solitude and introversion – being cut off from others. Naturally, this casts privacy as a negative commodity – only to be used by outcasts and the anti-social. Of course, this is an entirely artificial viewpoint brought on by the emergence of so many avenues for social communication. Private people (like myself) are seen as “weird” and are treated as such by the majority of society.

Most people imagine that criminals and other ne’er-do-wells are such people, since most have never met a criminal in their daily lives. As such, people associate privacy with wrong-doing – this association is not correct, and it should be readily apparent that the “logic” behind that association is completely flawed.

Privacy

Privacy is a state of being free from unwanted attention or intrusion. It does not require a complete cut-off from social contact, rather it requires a sense of boundaries between people.

However, many people seem to consider “privacy” and “concealment of wrongdoing” as being synonymous and as such consider that most forms of privacy must be something that is reserved for the criminal classes. Essentially the idea being that if you wish not to have unwanted attention on your person, you must clearly have something to hide.

This is utterly ludicrous, of course. You wouldn’t want your parents to know what kind of pornography you watch. You wouldn’t want your neighbours to know what weird stuff you’ve bought on eBay. You wouldn’t want your children to know how ferociously you swear and argue with people on the internet. So why would you want your goverment to know those things (and even more)? None of the things above are illegal, but you still don’t want other people to know about them. Why? Because they are private matters, things that you only share with the people you choose to share them with. This is why privacy is important, because there are certain things about your life which are perfectly legal – but are also private.

The Importance of Privacy

“This all sounds well and good, but what do you get out of privacy?”

Privacy allows you to exercise your legal rights and freedoms without fear of (wrongful) repercussions by governments or companies with axes to grind. It is a practical and effective measure to halt the chilling effect of powerful governments and corporations. Even if you have nothing to hide, good privacy laws allow you to live your life without fear of judgement or negative consequences as a result of how you choose to use your freedoms.

Guilty and innocent people alike benefit from privacy, and anyone who tells you otherwise is not being sincere.

Consequences of a Lack of Privacy

“But what happens if we lose some privacy, is it really that bad?”

That really depends upon wether or not you value your privacy and if you pander to the governments that be at all times. There have been examples where radical anti-terrorism laws (such as the PATRIOT Act in America) have caused innocent civilians exercising their freedom of speech in private conversations to be treated as potential terrorists! Of course, this is an extreme example, but it is an example where anti-privacy laws can cause innocent people to be suspected of wrong-doing – thus causing a chilling effect on their free speech (and use of their other freedoms).

Imagine, for a moment, that a random stranger was flicking through the mail in your mailbox. Would you ask if they had any justification, or if they were doing it to stop potential terrorists? I’m willing to bet that very few people would. Most people would probably demand that they leave their property alone, that they stop invading their privacy, etc. But if you now replace that stranger ferretting through your mail with a government agent ferreting through logs of your internet history, somehow the equation changes in the public eye. But what is the quantitative difference between a stranger who works for the government and a stranger who doesn’t, doing practically synonymous tasks?

The only real difference I could come up with is that the government agent’s invasion of your privacy is not readily apparent – it’s “out of sight, out of mind”. But that is a ludicrous justification, brought on by the person being lazy. Just because you don’t see the stranger looking through your personal effects doesn’t mean it isn’t happening – and you should be equally (if not more) agitated at the government agent as you are with the stranger in front of your house.

Common Arguments used against Privacy

The following are some arguments I’ve heard people use to try and “justify” anti-privacy laws. They are all invalid viewpoints to take, and I will explain precisely why they are illogical.

“It helps investigations / stop terrorism / cure cancer.”

I like to refer to this statement as the “snake-oil security” argument.

This statement may or may not be true (there is no evidence that I know of which shows a direct causal relationship between the amount of phone taps and metadata collection services and the amount of terrorist attacks stopped – and I very much doubt there is one). However, the truth (or non-truth) of the statement does not justify an unsanctioned invasion of privacy of innocent individuals. Privacy is a right, and the invasion of the privacy of innocent people as a pre-emptive measure – “just in case” – is utterly ridiculous. Pre-emptive measures are not effective nor moral, unless one makes that claim that the ends justifying the needs is a completely moral viewpoint – which it isn’t.

The reason that modern societies have a legal system is so that people with the power to usurp innocent people’s rights cannot do so without going through several checks and balances. Any anti-privacy laws tries to chip away those checks and balances by routing around the courts when investigating a person, which means they are not held accountable nor required to justify their actions in regards to infringing the privacy of an individual.

As Benjamin Franklin once said: “Those who would temporarily sacrifice a little liberty for a little security deserve neither liberty, nor security.” And that quote holds as well today as it did all those years ago. Trading privacy for snake-oil “security” is facepalm-worthy stupid.

“Why do you care? You have nothing to hide.”

I like to refer to this statement as the “innocent citizen” argument.

This is the quote I opened with, and is the main reason I wanted to write this blog post. This statement completely misses the point of privacy, and does not acknowledge the existence of the “chilling effect” which anti-privacy legislation has on free speech. Just look at the internet: anonymity has allowed people to speak their minds without fear of repercussions or backlash. This sense of privacy has allowed free speech to flourish, and new ideas are shared on this medium. However, on websites where privacy has been lost (such as social networking sites, where you are) there is a chilling effect on free speech – insofar as people who do not wear their opinions on their sleeves are concerned.

Privacy is not only for the guilty, it is for everyone. Privacy is a human right, and it gives you the freedom to exercise your other freedoms without fear of repercussions for how you choose to use those freedoms.

Why Make a Blog Post About It?

“All of the above might be true, but what has gotten you so riled up that you decided to spend the time to write it out as one giant tirade?”

Yes, it’s fair that this post is quite lengthy and is kinda beating a dead horse (we had the same wave of blog posts when PRISM was discovered, as well as every other unwarranted spying program). So why have I decided to take the time out to write all of this? Well, a series of things.

First and foremost, the Australian Government recently has made several pushes to legislate a series of anti-piracy laws. The majority of these laws are concerned with metadata retention policies by telcos – telcos must retain metadata from all of their customers, without being given a warrant. The argument for these laws is that it will be a weapon against terrorism (which is ridiculous, see the point about snake-oil security above). In short, these laws are blatant attack on the privacy of the Australian people and should not be allowed to pass.

However, as I have outlined above, public opinion on privacy laws are such that the majority people feel a sense of apathy toward protecting their privacy (many quoting the “innocent citizen” argument). As such, there hasn’t been a large-scale push back against these laws – apart from the odd GetUp! and EFF campaign (which have had limited success, given that the majority of the laws have been passed).

Secondly, quite a few people I know have told me that my strong opinions on privacy and freedom are “because you young”, and that I’ll “grow out of this phase”. That is an entirely ridiculous supposition, and I decided to make this blog post to show that my opinions aren’t just some airy-fairy bullshit-laden pipe-dream. They are a set of rigorously analysed beliefs which stand up to any level of scrutiny I have yet encountered. My opinions should be treated as just that – my opinions – not the “standard opinions” of someone of my age (that implication of course being an attempt to undermine the validity of my opinions by stating that there is some aspects I cannot comprehend and thus my opinions carry no weight).

And finally, because I am incredibly passionate about privacy and freedom – and I love writing about things I’m passionate about. I hope that this post is as enjoyable for you to read as it was for me to write.

Conclusions

“So, what the bloody hell was the point of all that?”

There really isn’t much left to conclude. I made my opinions quite clear from the start. Privacy is of the utmost importance, to everyone (guilty or not). Any law which attempts to userp your privacy is a law against your freedoms and should not be tolerated or allowed to pass. Privacy is not only for the guilty or for those with “something to hide”, it is for everyone. Privacy is a human right, and it gives you the freedom to exercise your other freedoms without fear of repercussions for how you choose to use those freedoms.

Unless otherwise stated, all of the opinions in the above post are solely my own and do not necessary represent the views of anyone else. This post is released under the Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license.

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