NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland
In 2015, acclaimed journalist and privacy advocate Glenn Greenwald gave a spectacular TED Talk on the importance of privacy. He showed us how the Internet has changed from a tool of liberation to a tool of compliance.
With all the recent developments with the FBI, Apple, and encryption over the last few weeks, we thought it’d be worth going back to basics for a bit and visiting the recurring debate over privacy.
Everyone should care about their privacy. Here’s why.
1. Everyone Has Something to Hide
“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
We all have something to hide, even if we don’t realize it.
Here’s an example:
In a 2009 CNBC documentary, then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously said: “If you’re doing something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
He was referring to how Google records users’ search inquiries, implying that ‘innocent’ people have nothing to hide. (We’ll get to the ‘innocent’ part later.)
Yet when CNET Magazine published an article containing private info about Schmidt, including his income, his neighborhood, and his political donations, he condemned the site for invading his privacy and under Google’s control publicly blacklisted the site.
Though Schmidt wasn’t breaking any laws or dipping his hand in nefarious activity (at least none that we knew of), he was still subject to exposure and so felt the sting of having parts of his privacy—as simple and mundane as there were—exposed.
2. Mass Surveillance Is Conditioning You to Act Differently
“A society in which people can be monitored at all times is a society that breeds conformity, obedience, and submission.”
Have you ever been doing something alone, but as soon as you realized you were being watched either immediately stopped or tried to alter your actions to be more in line with what you consider normal?
Yes, you have.
Shame is a powerful motivator, which is why people often act differently when they believe they’re being watched.
In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of now-famous experiments on the psychological effects of a surveillance state. The results were staggering.
He was able to prove how people were so ingrained in social conformity that they were willing to follow the crowd — even when they knew the crowd was wrong. Even worse, when people knew they were being surveilled, they were found to have higher levels of stress, anxiety, and doubt.
3. The Very Meaning of Privacy Is Changing
“Privacy is no longer a ‘social norm’.”
The fundamental meaning of privacy is evolving. Some people would even like to make you think it isn’t even a right anymore. These people are wrong.
The truth is, the Internet is changing what it means to be private. When you post something on social media, you’re choosing what you want to share. We all have that friend who posts excruciatingly private information about themselves on a daily basis, but it’s their information, and, therefore, their choice to post.
But what about all the information you don’t want to be made public?
Every time you type a search query in Google, that phrase is stored. Your IP address is assigned a random string of numbers that hundreds of thousands of nameless companies can use to serve customized ads based on your browsing habits. The information they have on you has become so advanced, so detailed, it could make you sick.
You can clear your cookies, you can delete your history, but your digital footprints will forever remain.
4. Surveillance Is Evolving
“There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me’.”
-Philip K. Dick
The fact that Internet giants like Facebook and Google collect zettabytes of highly personal data is one thing. The myriad other sites that collect your browsing habits and track your whereabouts behind the scenes is another.
If you’ve used an anti-blocking or -tracking extension, then you’ve seen just how much ‘muck’ there is online.
And that’s just scratching the surface. What about the sites that use the information they learn about you and your browsing habits to determine how much they should charge? In 2012, travel site Orbitz received a lot of negative attention for charging Mac users more for hotel options than PC users.
Sometimes it sucks to have a Mac
Legal? Maybe. Ethical? No way.
This is just one example of what happens when companies have more information than they rightfully should. Imagine when that info goes deeper than just what browser you’re using or when you bought your last pair of jeans.
5. When It Comes to Privacy, Your Actions Today May Haunt You Tomorrow
“Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect.”
The concept of liberty is intrinsic to privacy. When someone—whether it’s a hacker who’s stolen your identity or a company that has records of every site you visit—has enough information on you, it makes it exponentially easier for them to manipulate you.
The dirty truth is that anyone can be made to look like a scoundrel simply through their Internet history. Think of every forum comment you’ve ever left, every site you’ve ever visited. Every comment you’ve ever deleted…
Who would want everything they’ve ever done to be recorded? Every remark ready to be used against you when and if the need arises? Imagine the repercussions if that were to happen in our day-to-day lives. Everything we’ve ever said or done, saved in a folder, just waiting to be used against us or paint us sinister.
The fence in your front yard, the locks on your bedroom door, the curtains on your windows — these are all attempts to protect your privacy, your personal space. So why wouldn’t you want that same protection online?
It’s not about terrorists trying to hide a bomb plot; it’s about normal, everyday people who don’t want to have every trivial tidbit of their lives in stored the public domain.
What You Do Is Your Business
The problem with the current state of surveillance is that it’s evolving. If people don’t wake up and realize how their civil liberties are blatantly being violated, things will get worse.
It’s becoming more than just the cookies that track which websites you visit or the NSA agents who compile the audio logs of your phone conversations; it’s becoming a bleak future where we’re being forced to conform to a new normality most never saw coming.
This issue is important to us, and we’re sick and tired of seeing people claiming they’re indifferent to one of the greatest issues facing us today.
Privacy is a fundamental right. When it comes down to it, anyone who says they have nothing to hide is either a liar or misinformed.
What you do online is your own business, not ours, not the company you bought your jeans from, and certainly not your government’s.
Featured image:”NSA Headquarters” via Wiki Commons
Sad Mac user: Tim Gouw/Unsplash