Why Your Privacy Matters, Even If You're Not 'Doing Anything Wrong'

We've talked about why privacy matters in the internet age, but it's an ongoing battle. Glenn Greenwald — one of the first reporters to write about Edward Snowden's release of classified files — explains in this TED Talk why privacy is important, regardless of whether you do anything wrong or not.

Greenwald opens up with a perfect example of why privacy matters to everyone: There's nothing wrong with singing and dancing, yet you do it in private because you don't want to do it in front of others. You may have nothing incriminating to hide, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be allowed to hide when you want to sing and dance. The big problem, Greenwald explains, is that there is not only two types of people in the world. The world is not split into "good people" and "bad people". We are all just people, and we all do things that we don't want to be seen. Greenwald goes after those that suggest that if you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide:

"...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."

Greenwald believes that all of us have things to hide. We know what we want to keep to our self and what we want to share. But there's more to it than keeping our embarrassing secrets from others. Greenwald suggests that knowing you're being watched changes everything you do:

"The reason is that when were in a state where we can be monitored or can be watched, our behaviour 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."

Greenwald sees mass surveillance as something that takes away our inerrant freedoms and breeds conformity. When we believe there's always a guard watching us, we'll never step out of line. Every time you say that you don't have anything to hide, you're merely sidestepping the real issues. It's not about whether you're a "good person" or a "bad person" with secrets to hide. It's about what privacy means as a whole, for everyone. So what can you do? For starters, re-think how you should fight for privacy and educate yourself about what's going on and why it matters. Be aware of changes, support companies that value your privacy, protect your own privacy whenever you can, and find a way to make your voice heard. Check out the full talk above — if you still aren't sure about why we fight for privacy, it's an eye opener.

Glenn Greenwald: Why privacy matters [YouTube]


    There is also the fact that we can never truly relax except in our own private space.
    Even if it is just having other people around it is never the same as when you are alone. Let alone being under surveillance.

    It's more a question of defining exactly what is a public and what is a private space. I tend towards the "privacy doesn't matter" argument, but only in relation to activities among and around other people.

    Social behaviours, things that interact with and involve other people are different from locking the toilet door for some privacy, or picking your nose in your bedroom.

    The issue with privacy expectations on the internet, is that it's NOT the private realm. It's public, it's social, it's among other people. When I walk down a street in the city, I have no expectation of privacy. When I read books in a library, I have no expectation that nobody else can know what I'm reading. Why should it be different on the internet?

    If there is to be some kind of "right" to privacy on the internet, I say it should be like our right to privacy everywhere else. Set it hard and fast and simple and small. Don't start with an expectation that everything we do is private. Start with an expectation, like in RL, that everything we do amongst other people is NOT private.

      I disagree and believe there is an expectation to a minimum level of privacy in any public space. Using your library example, while I would expect that while people may notice what book or magazine I'm reading, most reasonable people would find it a gross invasion of privacy to have someone else hovering over their shoulder looking at the exact pages or article they were reading. Furthermore if I want to obscure what I'm reading from others I could place another book or magazine in front the one I'm actually reading so that it may appear I'm reading a highbrow magazine when in fact I'm actually reading a comic book.

      Using your walking down the street example, if I am on the street or in a public place I have a reasonable expectation that I could have a private conversation or write my thoughts down privately in my notebook. To achieve a private conversation I can lower my voice, move away from others, get closer to someone, or whisper into their ear. There is an expectation that someone will not have a very powerful microphone that can hear the conversation, or a camera that can record what I'm writing down on my notepad.

      A reasonable expectation to privacy in public places is actually enshrined in legislation in a number of states. The Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW) outlines a number of circumstances where a person’s privacy must be respected. For example, it is an offence punishable by a fine or imprisonment to photograph a person to provide sexual arousal or gratification if the person is undressed or engaged in a private act in circumstances where a reasonable person would reasonably expect to be afforded privacy, and he or she has not consented to being filmed. Similarly, the Surveillance Devices Act 1999 (Vic) and Surveillance Devices Act 1998 (WA) make it an offence to photograph a "private activity" without the consent of the subject.

      If I want to get a pornographic magazine, I have it delivered in a brown paper envelope so that the postman and my neighbours don't know the content. I send my mail in an envelope so that others can't read the messages. I shred documents, envelopes and mail before I throw them out so that no ones can read them if they go through my trash.

      When I have a private conversation on the phone there is a reasonable expectation that a third party is not listening in.

      I agree that if there is to be some kind of right to privacy on the internet then it should be like our right to privacy everywhere else. Regrettably, the current level of surveillance of a person's internet use allows the breach of all of these reasonable expectations of privacy that people have everywhere else.

        Adding to your comments about internet privacy - there are many people who use the internet as a means of private communication, a place of research, a place of study, a place of commerce, and a place of entertainment, to name just a few examples. In all these examples, the user is either engaging with one of more specified entities (individuals or companies), or is acting privately. None of these activities is open to public interaction, surveillance or scrutiny, unless the user chooses to participate in public forums, like this one.

        There is a huge difference between posting on Facebook for all the world to see, and doing the kind of things I describe above.

      Social behaviours, things that interact with and involve other people are different from locking the toilet door for some privacy, or picking your nose in your bedroom. So can I read your email ? I certainly don't want to share my email (its boring anyway) :) Even though I would like "privacy on the net" I think its now a mythical beast, like a unicorn :) I cant really think of any net (online) activity now that's private.

      Sure I can use a vpn to hide my IP, or encrypt stuff like email but on the whole I think its gone gone gone (privacy that is).

    Where people like Snowden and that wiki-twerp went wrong (actually the wiki-twerp is just a narcissist, so probably doesn't have a moral sense anyway) is that states must have privacy too. If your state has its privacy betrayed, its ability to protect its citizens and maintain economic competitivity could be out the window.

      I disagree Clive, for a democracy to truly function, it's population needs to know the truth behind policies that they are supposed to be supporting or otherwise, not lies and propaganda. In the US and here in Australia too, this balance has shifted dramatically towards secrecy and dishonesty to the population. When this is the case, democracy cannot function as the checks and balances are not in place.

      In the US the long standing ban on the government lying to and manipulating it's population via propaganda has since been repealed (via the repeal of the Smith-Mundt Act). In Australia we have several mechanisms which allow the government to manipulate democracy via secrecy and misinformation, all of which are now legal.

      State secrecy is not analogous to personal privacy.

      The State is there to manage the country on behalf of the people, and is accountable to the people. On that basis, it has no independent right that isn't authorised by the people. Protecting citizens and deceiving them are two very different things.

      None of the secrets revealed by Snowden or Wikileaks has caused any harm apart from embarrassment.

      I am assuming that you take the position that state privacy overrides individual privacy. I notice that you are posting as an anonymous guest. Isn't that ironic?

    Shouldn't "Greenwald sees mass surveillance as something that takes away our inerrant freedoms and breeds conformity", read, "Greenwald sees mass surveillance as something that takes away our inherent freedoms and breeds conformity"?

    "Why what you believe you believe is not what you believe and is wrong because I say so."


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