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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

Is Privacy Important?

Updated: May 31, 2020

Philosopher’s Café

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”(Edward Snowden) “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. It was conceivable that they [Thought Police] watched everybody all the time. You has to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.” (George Orwell, 1984) “Ultimately, the reason privacy is so vital is it is the real realm in which we can do all the things that are valuable as human beings. It’s the place that uniquely enables us to explore limits, to test boundaries, to engage in novel and creative ways of thinking and being.” (Glenn Greenwald) Have we come to the end of privacy? Have we actually signed away those very rights and privileges once considered inviolable? In George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, the citizens of Oceania assume they are under constant surveillance. Big Brother, inner party members, the thought police and even their own peers watch them. In our own day the government of the United Kingdom has installed millions of public-surveillance cameras in cities and towns. Officials, via closed-circuit television, watch citizens constantly. The campaign slogan for the program: "If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear." In a subtle way this epithet inverts what was once considered a fundamental right against government overreach: Government no longer needs to justify why they watch or listen to citizens. Instead, citizens must now justify why they should not be watched by demonstrating that they have nothing to hide! Of course, the truth is that we all ‘have something to hide’: we draw our curtains, keep secrets from others, close our bathroom and bedroom doors, speak so as not to be overheard. But violating our privacy may not at all be about our desire to hide the intimate or even bad things we do. It may, more importantly, be about our need not to have the corporate world or government know certain things about us. It may be more about our desire to secure a private place where imaginative freedom, curiosity, critical thinking and self-reflection can flourish unhindered and unwatched. Government agencies and corporations aggregate small bits of seemingly innocuous data: our ethnicity, gender, home address, email address, phone number, birth date, marital status, where we eat, the hotels we stay at, our internet surfing preferences, the kind of car we own. Individually, these bits of information may not appear to amount to much. But in the aggregate, they paint a picture—sometimes a distorted one—of who we really are. Yet we do not seem too worried about this. In a real sense we have come to believe that we are in control of our online identities.

Are we?

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