Privacy matters to each of us, but it is often difficult to articulate exactly why having our privacy eroded makes us uncomfortable. It is all too easy, however, to dismiss the attempts of digital privacy activists to curb the culture of mass-surveillance that dominates governance in the modern age. So often in these conversations, we hear that “you only have to fear erosion of your digital privacy rights if you have something to hide.” This narrative has become yet more ubiquitous in the face of increasingly intrusive counter-terrorism measures.
But this narrative is troubling for many reasons and is a message that we all have a stake in challenging, as privacy rights are inherently and instrumentally valuable to us all. It is important, first of all, to examine who has an interest in perpetuating this narrative. The people that stand to benefit the most from erosion of digital privacy rights are the people that collect and exploit the data for commercial gain- Facebook, Google, Netflix and so on. It is far more likely that lawmakers will be willing to relax data protection standards when the public absorbs this narrative, as it results in less scrutiny of erosive measures and less resistance. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that Google CEO Eric Schmidt, in a 2009 interview, said the following about privacy:
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
Or that Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, insisted the following in 2010:
“People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”
The very people who benefit from the erosion of privacy rights are perpetuating this narrative. And let’s be clear- the incentives they have to do this are enormous. The money such companies make through the exploitation of data is expected to hit nearly $50 billion by 2018. But this means we ought to scrutinise more closely the claims that this data collection is harmless.
Perhaps we ought to ask: why does privacy, or more specifically, the right to control what information people can discover about us, actually matter? Clearly, this is something that matters to everyone. After all, all of us, including those who support curbing privacy rights, want there to be passwords on our Facebook accounts, or controls on who sees our bank statements or medical records. Glenn Greenwald suggests that we should and do care about privacy because of the way it influences our actions, and what this means for our freedoms and the range of options available to us.
Greenwald uses the example of dancing in his TED talk. Some of us enjoy dancing as an outlet of creative expression and generally as a past time that enriches our lives. But it is also a personal experience, and we might not enjoy dancing or want to do it at all if we knew that people were watching. Thus, the phrase “dance like nobody’s watching.” This isn’t because we necessarily have something to hide, or because we have done anything wrong. Rather, this preference stems from the fact that we each consider ourselves to be autonomous individuals, and as such, want to have autonomy over how we express ourselves, including our reputations and what others think of us. So, we might stop dancing when someone starts watching because we are embarrassed, or want to preserve an image we have cultivated for ourselves, or because that is not how we want to express ourselves at that moment in time. Equally, I might stop dancing because it is an experience that is very personal to me, and my enjoyment of dancing stems from this, so it becomes less enjoyable for me when someone is watching.
This example shows why privacy is something we all consider to be inherently valuable, and why it is something that everyone, “good” or “bad,” has a legitimate stake in preserving. A critic might respond that governments do not care if their citizens are bad at dancing, so it shouldn’t matter to us if the government has this information in the first place. But this misses the point entirely. Mass surveillance and erosion of privacy are problems not just because of who knows the information or has the data; they are problems because of what they mean for our own freedoms and abilities to have a fulfilling life.
When you know you are not in private, you adjust your behaviour in place of what is socially conventional or “normal” behaviour. We care about what others think of us, so what we say and do in private is different to what we do in public. This does not make us bad people or incriminate us; it is a perfectly legitimate preference, and is something that we all do. But the result is the breeding of conformity, which reduces the range of options available to you and makes you less free. If I think I am being watched at all times, I am unlikely ever to do the things that matter to me and that I enjoy in private, because my private sphere has been eradicated. This is important outside the examples above- it has important implications for everyone that tries to challenge conformity and social norms, such as political activists and members of minority groups. With the rapid erosion of our privacy rights, we are effectively sleepwalking towards conformity.
It’s important to note that, because privacy demonstrably matters to all of us, people who campaign against mass surveillance and data collection are making perfectly legitimate arguments. They aren’t conspiracy theorists who think the government are out to get them, and thus these arguments should be taken seriously. The right to privacy protects our sphere of autonomy and enables us to have free and enriching lives in which we can express ourselves and do the things we enjoy on our own terms. The default position of blind acceptance of limits to this right has to be challenged.
Claudia Hyde, Staff Writer
 Richard Esguerra, ‘Google CEO Eric Schmidt Dismisses the Importance of Privacy’ (Electronic Frontier Foundation, 10 December 2009) <https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2009/12/google-ceo-eric-schmidt-dismisses-privacy> accessed 11 February 2016
 Luke Edwards, ‘How do companies make money from your data?’ (Pocket Lint, 14 August 2014) <http://www.pocket-lint.com/news/130366-how-do-companies-make-money-from-your-data> accessed 11 February 2016
 Glenn Greenwald, ‘Why privacy matters’ (TED, October 2014) <https://www.ted.com/talks/glenn_greenwald_why_privacy_matters?language=en> accessed 11 February 2016