Why privacy matters

Privacy is an important issue, whether it relates to your personal surroundings or your online activity. Some would dispute this or minimize the importance of privacy. Sometimes time-worn expressions are used to counter arguments about personal privacy and overaggressive surveillance.

All too often “national security” is trotted out as the rationale for unbridled government spying. But very often, another old saw is employed: “If you’ve got nothing to hide or are doing nothing wrong, than you have nothing to be worried about.” This last bromide is the subject of an a lecture by former Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald. In it he discusses the reasons why this adage doesn’t hold water and why your privacy does matter. Maybe after reading this piece, you will be more discerning about which discussions you join online and what private policy statements you just automatically accept.

Using the metaphor of one singing and dancing in private, Greenwald wonders if we would be so inclined and fancy-free in our singing and dancing to let it be viewed by the public. Most of us would probably not want our actions to be viewed by the public. But this is what we risk by kow-towing to governments and corporations when we use the Internet- whether by participating in ventures such as Facebook and Twitter of simply by searching online for information. Greenwald opines:

“…the people that say that, that privacy isn’t really important, they don’t actually believe it. And the way that you know that they don’t actually believe it, is that while they say with their words “privacy doesn’t matter,” with their actions they take all kinds of steps to safeguard their privacy. They put passwords on their email and their social media accounts, they put locks on their bedroom and bathroom doors. All steps designed to prevent other people from entering what they consider their private realm and knowing what it is that they don’t want other people to know.” 

 The fact that you’re watched can alter your actions:

 “The reason is that when were in a state where we can be monitored or can be watched, our behavior changes dramatically. …Mass surveillance creates a prison in the mind that is a much more subtle, though much more effective, means of fostering compliance with social norms or with social orthodoxy, and is much more effective than brute force could ever be.”

So, too frequently the result is conforming rather than creating because we don’t want to embarrass ourselves. We won’t dare to step out of line. As a consequence the tendency will be not to confront issues and policies head-on but to sidestep them. For many the issue began with our insatiable desire to connect with other and join in. So we begin to share information.

But while we may be comfortable with sharing what we ate for breakfast with a friend, we are not so inclined to do so with our medical insurance provider. But that’s what we risk as companies make our information available to other sources. Businesses, unlike governments, are not bound by the Privacy Act of 1974 and, in that regard, are less transparent governments. They sell your information to, and share it with, “strategic partners.”

Did it ever occur to you why you keep getting seemingly unsolicited invitations to buy things? Or have you ever given a second thought to the coupons that mysteriously arrive in the mail? This may seem benign, but when it comes to identity theft, that’s another story. But it is a real possibility as you put more information about yourself out there online.

For government agencies too, the procedures to glean information about you are easy, straightforward and available. Also available is information leading to your followers, family member and friends. And, many firms are readily compliant with a simple request for information from the government. The notion that everything requires a court order or a warrant is untrue.

Location based metadata access by unintended and unauthorized third parties impacts our physical safety and that of our loved ones. We’re not talking here about well- meaning public servants but possible stalkers. Loss of online banking/retailer data can lead to very dire economic consequences at worst but, at best, are inconvenient, unneeded, aggravations. And why should unintended people know things about you such as your sexual preference, political leanings to say nothing about your income and spending habits.

In the workplace, knowledge of your personal proclivities can wreak havoc on your career possibilities. On a grander scale, your company may lose out on a contract because it was underbid as a result of unauthorized information leaks. Politicians, often hiding behind the national security issue are too willing to sacrifice our personal privacy. When, in fact, the unavailability of information serves as a shield for them, protecting them from public scrutiny.

The answer lies in our desire to trade privacy for convenience. We have to take responsibility for our privacy. That means not downloading files and torrents from sketchy locations is in order. It means thinking more about with whom you share information and what you do in public WiFi spots.

Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him. Find him on Google+.

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One response to “Why privacy matters

  1. If one government is able to claim that its powers to “catch child molesters and murderers” need to be protected by a back to front door, then the same argument applies to anything produced in any country. We have a WORLD WIDE web, and international trade. Products can be made anywhere, and our connected devices have parts from all over the world. If the government of the country where USB firmware is being imprinted on USB devices says “we need a back door”, what should that company do? Say “no, the leader of the free world says no back doors!”?

    The FBI, CIA and agencies of their ilk have been making out like bandits in the last twenty years, as people have ignored how information about them is being scattered across the web. They simply don’t like the idea of going back to the days before ubiquitous surveillance, when they actually had to approach a court and then an individual to get the information they claim to need for a criminal investigation. It’s too bad – we have seen what they have in the genie’s bottle, and decided that it needs to be capped; for the sake of all innocent people. We need to get back to the notion that “it is better to let one hundred guilty men go free than to imprison one innocent man”.

    Laws protecting privacy are one step on a long road back to enshrining the rights of individuals – they may be constitutionally protected but it appears that document is no longer relevant to governments and their appointed enforcers of law.

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