If you take a brief look at my posts detailing my reasons for choosing not to use products owned by companies like Google and Facebook, you'll notice that the common thread is a single issue: privacy.

Most of my conversations with people about this topic result in strange looks and questions like 'are you going to start wearing a tinfoil hat?' and 'do you take yourself so seriously that you think the government cares about you?' My answers to those questions are 'yes, but only for fashion reasons' and 'no, but I'm planning to write a blog post explaining all of this stuff'. So here's the post.

'I have nothing to hide'

The most common objection to the idea that privacy is important for the average citizen is 'I don't care what corporations or the government know about me. I have nothing to hide'. This line of thinking shows a misunderstanding of the fundamental nature of human rights.

The assertion of the 'nothing to hide' argument is that privacy is only valuable to those who are doing something wrong. We need to realise that the people who get to define the meaning of 'doing something wrong' aren't just thinking of mass murder and terrorism, but anything that challenges their power, be it political protest, whistle-blowing or truthful journalism.

"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. Even if you're not using a given right at this precise moment, other people are. Saying that you don't care about a right because you're not using it personally is the most anti-social thing you can possibly say.

Nobody needs to justify why they need a right. The burden of justification falls on the one seeking to infringe upon the right. If one person chooses to disregard his right to privacy, that doesn't automatically mean everyone should follow suit. You can't give away the rights of others because they're not useful to you. More simply, the majority cannot vote away the natural rights of the minority."

- Edward Snowden

Our right to privacy from government monitoring is our right to live our lives without worrying how our words and actions might be interpreted or misinterpreted by a third party that's monitoring us. It's our right to make mistakes, speak carelessly, joke about sensitive or taboo topics and research the kind of information that we jokingly say will cause us to be added to 'the list'.

Our right to privacy from corporate data collection is our right to talk to our friends and family, visit places and use the internet without all of this activity being tracked to generate a profile that can be monetised.

Privacy is not a luxury to be discarded by those who don't value it, but a prerequisite for maintaining the dignity of individuals and the harmony of a society. When privacy protects an individual, it does so for the benefit of society.

To say that the right to privacy isn't valuable because you as an individual aren't currently exercising it implies that the only way for a person to be free of the threat to their privacy is to render their lives and activities sufficiently harmless that they represent no danger to those who wield political power.

The fact that there are other people who are willing and able to resist and be adversarial to those in power - dissidents and journalists and activists - is something that brings us collective good that we should want to preserve. The measure of how free a society is, is not how it treats its good, obedient compliant citizens, but how it treats dissidents and those who resist orthodoxy.

- Glenn Greenwald

I know, I know. Godwin's Law and all that.

The Chilling Effect

Even if mass surveillance and data collection doesn't lead to an individual's arrest or directly cause them bodily harm, it breaches our civil liberties by causing self-censorship and suppressing our natural and legal rights to seek information, freely associate and dissent against the government.

In the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations of widespread monitoring by the U.S. National Security Agency, traffic to Wikipedia entries related to terrorism and those that mentioned 'al Qaeda', 'Taliban' and 'car bomb' dropped by 20 percent.

A citizen who feels that they're being watched or tracked will be more careful about the websites they visit, their conduct in public places, the people with whom they associate and the views they express publicly and privately.

"Privacy is not a matter of having something to hide, but having the freedom to choose what you share and what you keep to yourself.

Without privacy we don't have civil liberties. If we make public the default, then anything we want to keep private has an association of guilt attached."

- Aral Balkan

Photo: National Review Online

Just as exercising one's right to remain silent or appoint legal representation shouldn't arouse suspicion of guilt, neither should exercising one's right to privacy. We don't suspect a person who locks their doors and closes their curtains of concealing unlawful activity, but our society and governments often fail to extend that presumption of innocence to those who safeguard their communications and data.

Even if some form of surveillance is conducted, it has to be necessary and proportionate to the probability of a serious crime or threat. Saying that we need indiscriminate mass surveillance to catch terrorists is like saying that we need to drop a nuclear bomb on a city to kill criminals. In the case of surveillance, the collateral damage is not millions of lives, but the destruction of our civil liberty.

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. You had to live in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised".

- Winston Smith in George Orwell's 1984

As trite as it sounds to make references to Orwell, Huxley, Nazi Germany and dictatorships throughout history, it would be a grave mistake to fail to heed the lessons of dystopian fiction and history. The indiscriminate gathering of information on citizens is often one of the first steps in the playbook of oppressive regimes seeking power.

Article 12 of the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks".

If surveillance or data collection is conducted, we should be informed of the reason, extent and usage of the data and given the opportunity to correct it. In the absence of such transparency, the power balance between a government and its citizens shifts dangerously in a single direction.

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