While attending a Politics, Law and Economics summer program, the other attendees and I split up into breakout session groups to discuss a cybersecurity lecture. During the discussion, the topic of the Patriot Act, NSA and government surveillance arose, upon which one of my peers asked, “If I’m not doing anything wrong, then why should I care?” The better question is, “If I’m not doing anything wrong, why should they care?”
Privacy refers to the condition of staying separate from the public sphere. In the private sphere, individuals are guaranteed freedom of thought, rendering the private sphere essential in case of societal or governmental infringements (for instance, if the government began cracking down on speech and monitoring what may or may not be said). Privacy gives individuals freedom even if it’s taken away everywhere else, making it a necessary condition for thinking and expressing oneself freely.
“Privacy is having the right to decide how you want to live, what you want to share, and what you choose to expose to the risks of transparency,” Harvard Business school professor Shoshanna Zuboff said. “In surveillance capitalism, those rights are taken from us without our knowledge, understanding or consent, and used to create products designed to predict our behavior.”
Societal recognition of the private sphere gives individuals permission to defend it at all costs against tyranny or oppression. One would think this sentiment is dramatic given that individuality is untouchable. However, when people know they are under surveillance, their behavior changes.
“If your goal is to control a population, mass surveillance is awesome.”
The Chinese government bases its surveillance tactics on this fact of self-censorship. “It wants people to self-censor because it knows it can’t stop everybody,” security expert Bruce Schneier, a fellow in the cybersecurity program of the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Government and International Affairs, said. “The idea is that if you don’t know where the line is, and the penalty for crossing it is severe, you will stay far away from it. Basic human conditioning. If your goal is to control a population, mass surveillance is awesome.”
Philosopher Michel Foucault first brought the idea of self-censorship to attention with the panopticon of discipline and punishment, which consists of three principles: 1) the institution will punish, 2) peers will punish and 3) the self will punish. The threat of an institutional punishment is the first barrier, with societal pressure being the second, leading to self-censorship to prevent these consequences.
The evolution of the global surveillance state may lead to more sinister consequences, including suppressing political dissent, discouraging whistleblowers or stopping free discourse. “If democratic self-governance relies on an informed citizenry, then [the] surveillance-related chilling effects [of] deterring people from exercising their rights, including the freedom to read, think and communicate privately are corrosive to political discourse,” Jon Penney, a former fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, said.
However, the government may not be the biggest culprit. Big tech’s business model is based on collecting everything on everyone, also known as data mining for profit. Big data sells all information it has on its users, even information users do not knowingly give, to advertisers. Beyond this, information ranging from social security numbers to credit card digits sits in each of these databases. If they were breached, sensitive information could end up in malicious hands.
Yet, beyond these more outwardly negative effects, big data analytics introduce the ability to know so much about an individual — beyond their own knowledge of themselves — that it’s frightening. Today, when someone says, “My life is on my phone,” it can be taken literally. Phones store photos, passwords, texts, emails, voicemails, contacts, documents and so on. It has become nearly impossible to participate in modern life without a cell phone.
In response to the original question of my peer, infamous NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden holds the perfect answer. “Privacy is not about something to hide; it’s about something to protect,” Snowden said. “Privacy is the right to a self, the right to a free mind. Privacy is the foundation of all other rights.”
Privacy is the ever-present barrier that protects you — it is the power over yourself. Whether you choose to give that power up is a personal choice. But, maybe next time you’re scrolling through the terms and conditions, read the fine print before signing off your right to yourself.