I’m the type of person who needs to understand why I feel what I feel. I want to understand what drives me and what drives the people around me. I’m emotional but I like to be aware of what’s behind those emotions.
That’s why I found myself confused by last week’s NSA revelations. I found them uncomfortable but I could explain why. My gut said that a loss of privacy was bad but my brain couldn’t verbalise the consequences.
I read and re-read Daniel Solove’s essay, Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have Nothing to Hide. I also read a terrifying account of a citizen of one of the Arab Spring countries. However the post-privacy, dystopian future that Daniel painted is already the rather pleasant reality of my today and I’ve already given away almost enough information to be as vulnerable as that Arabic citizen.
Solove references the Orwellian vision of the future where our location, activities thoughts and relationships are tracked constantly. I’ve largely already opted into that world. My relationships, thoughts, activities and location are tracked via Facebook, my blog and Twitter. I’ve already opted in to being surveilled. My Facebook details may be only available to my friends but when there’s 900 of those, the distinction is academic.
I’ve personally written the dossier for a Kafkaesque trial where information about me is used to convict me without me knowing what’s within. I put my CV on LinkedIn, my philosophies on my blog and my affiliations on Facebook.
So I find myself confused. Sharing per-se does not seem to be bad. CIA dossiers of the 1950s were probably slimmer than Google’s dossier on me today and yet having that information in public has been of great personal and professional benefit. So why did the idea of PRISM bother me? Was I simply being a hypocritical reactionist? Why did I feel that Edward Snowden had done something patriotic and admirable and worth the tremendous cost he will have to pay for it?
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that it wasn’t the loss of privacy which was was bothering me, it was the loss of my right to privacy and perhaps even more than that, the loss of privacy of those who represent and protect me.
PRISM is most frightening because it is secretive and forces us to assume that all of our online activities are recorded. If I know how the government is hoovering up data then I can modify my behaviour accordingly. If I don’t know where they’re gathering data then it’s only sensible to assume that everything is available to them. If I tweet it’s public and I expect that my public thoughts may be taken down and used in evidence against me. While there was some talk of Twitter’s noticeable absence from the PRISM slide it’s probably less to do with their moral fibre and more to do with their API. I expect and you should too that our public thoughts will become public record
The idea of losing my privacy online is uncomfortable. However I can always switch off and become private again. But while going offline today is inconvenient, going offline in 20 years may be debilitating. The rate at which our lives are becoming digitally assisted is breathtaking. That means that not only will we be more digitally-dependent but switching off will be more conspicuous.
If your baggage boards a plane but you don’t follow your absence is not only conspicuous it’s consequential. The plane will be delayed and your baggage removed. In years to come our online absence may prove to be just as conspicuous. Simply by falling off the radar, by switching off our location monitoring, step-tracking, heart-monitoring and sleep monitoring we may become just as conspicuous as that empty seat in 22c.
Today PRISM removes privacy in the part of our lives which are online. When online and offline become inseparable and switching off isn’t any more an option that removing the number plates on my car, PRISM will have removed my right to privacy completely.
So losing online privacy may ultimately mean losing the my entire notion of privacy but I still have little more than an ideological cost to show for that. It sounds bad but how does it hurt me? Is it perhaps a price worth paying in the multi-billion dollar fight against the spectre of terrorism?
While troubling, the loss of my personal privacy may not actually be so consequential, I’m not of immediate interest to the government. They’re much more concerned with politicians they’re debating with with, contractors they’re negotiating with, lawyers or judges who might at some day need to impeach them. What happens though when their lives cease to be private? If an impeached president can read a judge’s notes using his NSA search engine can he really ever be tried?
Our information is our achilles heel, it’s leverage. A disease we haven’t revealed to our employer could compromise our jobs. An STD we kept private might publicly shame us. The fact that maybe our true sexuality is not the one we publicly portray, the fact that maybe the people we love are not the ones we live with. The fact that maybe we weren’t sick on that day we called into work and were instead skiing. All of these are things that can be used to manipulate and maneuver us.
Everyone has an Achilles’ heel buried somewhere in their lives and if a government has unfettered access to everyone’s information then they have access to everyone’s Achilles’ heel. The right to access our lives is the right to access the lives of the people who protect us and the right to do that is the right to rule unchallenged. All the good that Obama did with Obamacare will fade to black if he inadvertently negates the safety nets which protect us from bad leadership. Absolute knowledge is absolute power and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
All democratic nations were built on a system of checks and balances. All of them were built to be resilient to the occasional bad or corrupt leader. If you give that leader control over his opposition though, if you give him an arsenal of weaponry that no politician, no lawyer and no judge can oppose then you hand him the keys to do whatever he wants both domestically and internationally.
So when the average man or woman on the street says they don’t mind the NSA having access to their Gmail they’re probably not being naive. Ask them instead though whether the people that protect them should have privacy, whether the judges, the lawyers, the journalists and the opposition leaders should have the freedom from government. Ask them whether the people who protect them should have freedom to do their jobs unencumbered and you may not get the same answer.
When I first thought about it I couldn’t understand what was tangibly bad about giving government unfettered access to its our digital lives. The more I think about it though, the more I fear that with our ever more digitally entwined lives, a government with absolute access to that digital life has absolute power over us and absolute power to neutralise those we elect to protect us.