Privacy Protects Bothersome People

…and isn't about me (or probably you)

25 July 2013

One of the consequences of the Edward Snowden story is a heightened discussion about the importance of privacy - in particular when or if privacy should be traded off in order to combat terrorism. To think about this we need to understand why privacy of individuals is important to a democracy. We often hear statements like "I have nothing to hide", or as a friend of mine put it "the NSA doesn't care about insignificant people like you or me". I may care about my privacy, but should my personal desire trump the needs of our broader society?

For many people, privacy is a fundamental right - they see no reason why a government should be meddling in my affairs without a more specific reason than a blanket search for possible terrorism. But even if you don't share a desire to preserve some privacy from government agents, you should still be concerned about citizens' privacy. This is because it isn't about me, or my friend. The value of privacy to us isn't primarily about our privacy but about those who play a more active role in the operation of a democratic system of government. Such activity often involves bothering people who have power, and those with power are likely to use their power to suppress the bothersome. But without all that bothering, democracy withers.

A couple of concrete examples should make this easier to see. The first is that of journalists. Journalism is itself a profession that's noticeably suspect to Sturgeon's law. But the frivolousness and disrepute that tarnishes much journalism doesn't invalidate good journalism when it happens. Good journalism is about helping us understand what is happening in the world, such journalism often requires asking hard questions of those in power, and digging behind the surface to find truths that the powerful would rather remain hidden. Such digging is considerable bother to those in power, particularly when it exposes corruption or incompetence.

A second example is activists who are looking to change our society. Such activists, by their nature, are often trying to change accepted habits of behavior. They may be clamoring for gay rights, or against abortions, or against factory farming. Their protests and campaigns will often be against the interests of those in power, and thus their activities are considerable bother - especially as they gain traction.

So let's suppose you're in power, you're being bothered by journalists and activists, and you have access to metadata about everyone's telephone calls. With this information you can find out who your tormentors are talking to, where their sources of information are, who is supporting them with encouragement and funds. You can act against these people to block their support. You may also find things out about your tormentors and supporters that can be used to discredit them. An activist in favor of gay rights is likely to know many gay people, often in places where homosexuality is considered abhorrent. That's a vulnerability that you can exploit. Furthermore your tormentors are unlikely to be saints, most people have things that can look bad, particularly when you can apply a powerful spin. A journalist's substance abuse problem may not be stopping her expose corruption, but you can use it to derail her efforts.

I'm not saying that privacy is an absolute. Foiling criminal activity often means breaching privacy - a database of phone calls can be helpful tool to investigate a criminal network. But we must also be aware that such tools are always liable to misuse, and thus we must ensure we discuss how to design controls to reduce such misuse to a minimum.

I'm not a crusading journalist nor an activist, so why should all this trouble me? Without good journalists I can't understand what is really happening and thus I can't cast a meaningful vote. Flourishing corruption suffocates economic activity and progress. Activists who seem fringe now, may lead us to changes that are self-evident in a few generations (there was considerable harassment of those that fought against slavery or in favor of female suffrage). In short if we can't protect the privacy of those who bother the powerful, then we lose a vital pillar of a democratic society.

Later Incidents

Some examples of the kind of abuses I'm concerned about that have appeared since I wrote this

Further Reading

One investigative journalist who has been subject to a lot of harassment is Laura Poitras, a 2012 MacArthur Fellow and award-winning documentary filmmaker. Her experiences have been documented by Salon and the New York Times Magazine.

PJ, the host of the excellent Groklaw site that's been helping to explain the law and act to defend the open sources community, explains why lack of privacy has made her quit. It expands my argument into the role privacy plays in psychological well-being.

Some psychological experiments show evidence that surveillance causes people to suppress opinions that they think are minority opinions.