This post was inspired by a presentation made by Numendil at PSES2013 in June. If you happen to be fluent enough in French, you can watch the presentation on YouTube.
Before anything else, let’s start by defining what a persons’ privacy is exactly. Here’s how the Oxford dictionary defines ‘privacy’:
The state of being free from public attention Oxford Dictionaries
I don’t find this definition to be crystal clear. A perfect definition of privacy doesn’t exist, but Numendil came up with a pretty nice one, at least in my opinion:
One’s privacy is a set of elements, that are tangible, or not, and which have some confidential nature. Those elements are different depending on each person’s education, their work, etc. This makes the existence of a universal definition of privacy impossible, because there are almost as much definitions as there are people on Earth.
If we analyse this definition, we can conclude that each person who thinks she has a privacy (or intimacy) has something he doesn’t want to be known by a random person. In other words, a person who has a private life has, by definition, something to hide.
Some things aren't anyone else's business; private life isn't necessarily bad, it's just private. Tweet this
Governments and other instances often invoke reasons that seem legitimate to invade people’s private lives. In the United States, for instance, they tend to use the fight against terrorism as an excuse to monitor everything and everyone.
Tolerating this surveillance is somehow encouraging the gradual progression towards a police state. It starts with “we’re watching all of you to find the terrorists hidden among you” and then it escalades slowly to something like “we arrest everyone who browses this particular illegal website” and then you end up at “we arrest everyone that doesn’t agree with our ideology”. In short, it allows governments to set up a system that can be very easily used for an entirely different purpose. Let’s have a look at the motto the British government used to reassure it’s citizens regarding the installation of their CCTV cameras: “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear”. I think a more accurate version would be “If you’re not hiding anything, you’ve got nothing to fear, for now…”.
What isn't again the law today, may be against the law tomorrow. Tweet this
Let’s also add that, for society to progress and change, laws must be broken. Not so long ago, being homosexual was considered a crime. It would still be the case if groups for sexual equality couldn’t have formed because of surveillance as we have today. As Falkvinge says it:
"It is an absolute necessity to be able to break unjust laws for society to progress and question its own values, in order to learn from mistakes and move on as a society." Tweet this
The problem is that, generally, most people don’t realize how similar the digital world is to the real world. Most citizens won’t bat an eye if they hear their government is monitoring their online communications, often invoking the good old “I don’t have anything to hide”. Just wait until you tell them cameras are going to be installed in every single room of their home to keep an eye on them, just in case they would do something bad. It wouldn’t take long for people to massively take to the streets. Yet, it’s exactly the same thing.
Accepting this surveillance is just like authorizing a police officer to live in our living rooms. The surveillance of our communications, however, has just one little advantage: it is less perceptible than a police officer. It’s easier to submit to a threat that we do not see, compared to the clearly visible threat of a police agent watching over us constantly.
Any surveillance must be regarded in terms of how it can be abused by a worse power than today's. Tweet this
It’s also important to realize the danger represented by data aggregation. The information you obtain when you aggregate data rarely reflects the whole reality. Two separate pieces of data may have no particular meaning or link between them, but sometimes, you can get to false conclusions by regrouping this data.
Here’s Numendil’s example: imagine that you’re a writer, writing a novel telling the story of a meth cook. In order to write a high quality story, you decide to buy a certain number of books about methamphetamine. A couple of weeks later, you decide to build a house, so you buy a whole lot of chemicals, tools, etc. Seeing your trailer full with all that stuff, you decide to take a picture of it and you post it to Twitter. Imagine that among the chemicals you’ve bought, some of them can be used to cook meth. By aggregating all the preceding data, the first thing people will think is that you’re a meth cook, while this isn’t necessarily the case.
In other words, even if those surveillance programs harvest a lot of data, they rarely know the full story. Of course, after investigating you, people will see their mistake and you’ll be cleared. However, everyone knows how investigations generally do quite a lot of damage, both psychological and social, or even physical.
Numendil also gives an example using a software called Maltego, which is used to aggregate data and can be downloaded for free (read “surveillance programs have software that is way more sophisticated and has access to much larger amounts of data”). By looking himself up, instead of finding his Facebook profile (which is not publicly visible), the software finds the Facebook profile of someone with the same name that posts and says a lot of racist things. Therefore, according to Maltego, he’s a racist person. In short, data aggregation doesn’t rarely gives us exact information.
Let’s also not forget that, since all this surveillance is carried out secretly, people don’t know which data is collected and don’t have any chance to correct possible misinterpretations. Another important thing to remember is that what we know (the NSA, Prism, etc.) is probably only the tip of the iceberg. Speaking of which, we recently discovered France was basically doing the same thing.
You're not the one who determines if you're guilty; the ones who are watching you are. Tweet this
In short, it’s not because some people are against government surveillance that they have something to hide; it’s just that they think some things aren’t anyone else’s business.
Here are some posts you may want to read where I got some inspiration for this post:
- Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’
- Debunking the Dangerous “If You Have Nothing to Hide, You Have Nothing to Fear”
- Why ‘Nothing to Hide’ misrepresents online privacy
- Surveillance: You may have ‘nothing to hide’-but you still have something to fear
I’ll finish this post with the following quote:
People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both. Benjamin Franklin