Why privacy matters

In the summer of 2014 I read Glenn Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide on Edward Snowden. This provided an insight into the level of information gathering performed by a large government agency. Although I skipped over some of the specific details, it was a stimulating read. In this blog entry I’d like to pick up the specific question of privacy and examine it in greater depth.

It seems to me that there are two contexts in which we can view the question of privacy. Firstly, let us imagine a world where there is a large organisation that knows everything (or several that know everything). And secondly, let us imagine a world where everybody knows everything about everyone (or has access to knowing everything about everyone). The discussion around Edward Snowden focusses on this first question within the context of the actions of government agencies. The discussion around Google Glass focuses on the second question. As I have seen it, these discussions revolve around introducing new data protection laws that will reduce the amount of information available, or reduce access to it.

My attitude until now has been that the technology exists, that it will continuously be improved and that it will be used (whether legally or otherwise). That everything I post online, or type into my computer, or someone else types into their computer about me, should be expected to be found sooner or later by other people. I do not attempt anonymity by the use of pseudonymns, and I stand by what I write. Until now I have not felt that my secrets needed protection – my view is that all will be revealed at the last judgement, and it’s better to deal with issues now rather than delay public exposure until then.

I have also taken the view that the whole information gathering, storage and analysis process cannot hope to scale to the volumes of information that exist today, and which are expected to continue to grow exponentially. It will ultimately be a fulltime job to gather all the useful information on just one person. Will we ever get to that kind of world?

However, having read the book, I’m moving to revise my persective. Let us return to imagining those two worlds. For the second world, one consequence would be that it would be pointless to lie, pointless to commit a crime. Everyone on the number 4 tram will know everything about me, including whether I had exceeded the speed limit, received untaxed income, forgotten to return a library book. I would never need to introduce myself at social gatherings. If I wanted to invite a friend around, they wouldn’t need to find an excuse if they didn’t want to come. The doctor wouldn’t need to ask me how much alcohol I consume.

There are benefits to living in this kind of world, but I’m now doubting on whether they outweigh the inconveniences. The question seems to revolve around reevaluating privacy. It seems to me that we need privacy in order to be human. I’ve now realised that there can be value in temporary secrets – there are things that are important to keep secret now, but which can be revealed without (too much) embarrassment later on. My wife’s love letters – life-long. Christmas presents – up until Christmas. My employer’s secrets – maybe 50 years? One to one conversations – probably life-long. Interview minutes – ten years? A surprise – up until the moment it’s revealed. Exam questions – up until the exam.

The great merit of Glenn Greenwald’s book is to ask the question of how to nuture and protect privacy. There are two tools – regulation and encryption. I can influence the scope of regulation through the political process. But the main tool that I have in my own hands is encryption. People who know the value of privacy will need to learn how to effectively use encryption.

What should I encrypt, and what should I not encrypt? In this I’m tending to follow the book’s lead. The default is with encryption switched on. Don’t just encrypt the things you want to hide, but protect your private sphere by making it large. Where did I go on holiday in summer 2005? What marks did I get for maths in 1983? What’s the name of my favourite author in 1971? All of these are trivial details of my life. But in order to preserve privacy, trivial details need to be private by default.

A world without privacy is a world of machines, no longer a world of human beings. I am tending towards the view that privacy is an essential component in being human. Our duty to each other is to respect each other’s humanity by respecting each other’s privacy. Our duty to each other is to maintain our private spheres. Such is the cost of maintaining our humanity.


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