Privacy Primer – Why it matters and What to say

By Tim Bray – Google

They’re listening to us too much, and watching too. We’re not happy about it. The feeling is appropriate but we’ve been unclear about why we’re feeling it.

This causes two problems: First, people worry that they’re being unreasonable or paranoid or something (they’re not). Second, we lack the right rhetoric (in the formal sense; language aimed at convincing others) for the occasions when we find ourselves talking to the unworried, or to law-enforcement officials, or to the public servants minding the legal framework that empowers the watching.

The reason I’m writing this is to shoot holes in the “If you haven’t done anything wrong, don’t worry” story. Because it’s deeply broken and we need to refute it efficiently if we’re going to make any progress.


Privacy is a gift of civilization

Living in a civilized country means you don’t have to poop in a ditch, you don’t have to fetch water from the well and firewood from the forest, and you don’t have to share details of your personal life. It is a huge gift of civilization that behind your front door you need not care what people think about how you dress, how you sleep, or how you cook. And that when communicating with friends and colleagues and loved ones, you need not care what anyone thinks unless you’ve invited them to the conversation.

Privacy doesn’t need any more justification. It’s a quality-of-life thing and needs no further defense. We and generations of ancestors have worked hard to build a civilized society and one of the rewards is that often, we can relax and just be our private selves. So we should resist anyone who wants to take that away.

There are bad cops

The public servants who are doing the watching are, at the end of the day, people. Mostly honorable and honest; but some proportion will always be crooked or insane or just bad people; no higher than in the general population, but never zero. I don’t think Canada, where I live, is worse than anywhere else, but we see a pretty steady flow of police brutality and corruption stories. It’s a fact of life.

Given this, it’s unreasonable to give people the power to spy on us without factoring in checks and balances to keep the rogues among them from wreaking havoc.

The cop-culture problem

It seems universally true that public-safety staff develop powerful tribal cultures, with intense inward-facing loyalties, and an attitude toward outsiders that smells paranoid to many.

History is full of examples, ranging from the commonplace cop-screws-up-and-department-covers-up to the-secret-police-stage-a-coup. It’s a systemic problem and nobody’s figured out how to make it not happen. Thus we need to watch the watchers, assume they will sometimes act stupid or paranoid or corrupt, and deal with that when it happens.

Talking points for everyday use

First, it’s OK to say “I don’t want to be watched”; no justification is necessary. Second, as a matter of civic hygiene, we need to be regulating our watchers, watching out for individual rogues and for paranoid culture.

So it’s OK to demand privacy by default; to fight back against those who would commandeer the Internet; and (especially) to use politics to empower the watchers’ watchers; make their political regulators at least as frightened of the voters as of the enemy.

That’s the reasonable point of view. It’s the surveillance-culture people who want to abridge your privacy who are being unreasonable.

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