Whenever I write about privacy I tend to get a whack of replies (and unsubscribes) calling me a tinfoil hat nutter and explaining that normal, law-abiding citizens shouldn’t care about privacy because they have nothing to hide.
While I understand this line of reasoning (if you’re not doing anything wrong, you should have “nothing to hide”), it’s both uninformed and dangerous. I intend to fully explain why caring about privacy is something everyone should do, not just privacy nerds like me.
A while back, Manoush Zomorodi interviewed Elan Gale (executive producer of The Bachelor TV show) on the Privacy Paradox podcast about how we always try to curate our perceived selves when we know someone else is watching.
Whether it’s on reality TV or even just social media, we act and speak differently because we know we are being watched. We lose our ability to be authentic or explore our own identity and views because we’re stuck trying to put forward our “best selves” and ensure everyone else that we’re here “for the right reasons”. (Didn’t think I’d ever write a Bachelor-related joke on this newsletter? ME NEITHER). Without private spaces it’s harder to connect and explore ideas with others: from just getting to know other people for who they are to bigger things like being able to question the world, society, governments, etc.
Privacy can’t just mean that data is collected and then hopefully never used. A lot of times we’re told that data collected about us is for quality assurance or safekeeping or to help better personalize our experience, etc, etc. But the problem is that collected data has a tendency to be used against us eventually (if it’s monetizable or even just leaked/hacked). Nothing is truly secure, especially online, and data gets breached with increasing regularity—even government data. It’s not a matter of if data collected about us will be breached or hacked, it’s a matter of when. So having data on us, even if it’s just being collected and not used, will be used eventually.
Saying that we should have “nothing to hide” is also a completely privileged statement and view as well—for those of us lucky enough to live in currently-democratic countries. Minorities need privacy to shield themselves from social and government repercussions. Those with different sexual orientations, religious minorities, and even folks who just question political leaders in places where it’s illegal require a great deal of privacy for safety. Without privacy, a nefarious government could round up anyone who votes for the opposition. The right to keep our views and personal lives private is important because governments have a tendency to change, sometimes not for the better.
As citizens, we need protection from corporations too. A few years ago it was technically possible on Facebook to target housing ads solely at white people (filtering out people of colour). While that’s completely illegal in the US, it was still possible to do on Facebook, using data they had collected about their users.
In a democratic society, we should have rights that protect us from our governments knowing everything about our lives and views. Fortunately, in democratic countries, if law enforcement or a government agency wants to enter your house, root through your things, or investigate your digital footprint, they need a warrant from a neutral judge. Yet, if private companies like Facebook or Google want to take our data and personal “effects” (what we do or say online), they just take it through our consent (signed over in lengthy and confusing “Terms of Service” legal docs), use it and have it, without much fuss. It’s important here to note that there is a difference (currently) between governments and big tech companies gathering our data, in so much as governments have things like prisons, guns and death penalties. So while it’s bad that corporations take and use our data without cause, the repercussions aren’t yet as dire as governments doing the same.
The argument is often made that we need to give up some privacy for safety. Like searches at airport security prior to boarding planes or answering questions at a border before being allowed entry. And to be clear, a case for privacy doesn’t mean absolute privacy (you can go live off the grid in the woods for that). Those searches and questions even seem quite reasonable to most people, myself included. But I do think we should get a say or option when privacy rights are eroded (i.e. you can choose not to fly if you don’t want your person to be searched or not cross a border if you don’t want to answer questions by border patrol). Governments especially love to use ne’er-do-wells and evil-doers, hell bent on destroying the world as we know it, as reason to weaken privacy laws. And, as I said, sometimes it makes sense to opt into giving up some privacy for the sake of the general good. The problem is that when governments push for weaker privacy rules to combat evil, they backslide into using the new lack of privacy for unrelated things.
Privacy of our ideas, data and places is a fundamental human right and should be determined by the people. Not by what governments tell us can be private, not by tech companies telling us they care about privacy and then selling our data to the highest bidder.
Sure, some of us might have nothing to hide right now, but we’d also not want to have our personal information published online (like our home address on Reddit or our Social Security Number on the Dark Web or videos of us using the bathroom or having sex posted on social media). Nor should we want people who legitimately want to keep some things private to be forced away from their privacy, sometimes even unknowingly.
Privacy isn’t just for those who have nefarious reasons to hide things from others, but for everyone. And when privacy is compromised, by big tech or by the government, it affects us all. The “nothing to hide” argument just doesn’t make sense, because we all have some things (not evil things) that we’d rather not be made public.
Hi, I'm Paul Jarvis. I write a weekly newsletter called the Sunday Dispatches where I share articles about working and living online with 35k subscribers: