Combatting Apathy: Why Privacy Matters

February 9, 2017

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Privacy isn’t about something to hide. Privacy is about something to protect. It’s about protecting your rights.

It’s about protecting your sense of self. It’s about protecting an open and liberal society, a free society where you can be who you want.[1]

Edward Snowden

 

Our lives are more transparent than ever before. Almost every instance of human activity generates some form of electronic record. Whether it be a purchase, a text message or e-mail sent, or a trip taken, a variety of organizations are following the digital tracks our journey through life inevitably leaves behind. Even a stroll through a busy downtown district is recorded on camera. This is not science fiction, but rather a modern reality.

So what? Many Canadians say they don’t care if the governments and corporations track them, and that they have “nothing to hide.” Others would argue that sacrificing a degree of privacy is necessary in order to ensure their security in a dangerous world. In fact, it could be argued that openly sharing information is simply a component of our today’s culture. As Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg stated, “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”[2] Certainly, striking a balance between privacy and security is difficult, and worthy of a vigorous public debate. Likewise, it may be true that some people are more comfortable sharing personal information with the world than in the past. Yet, an apathetic approach to surveillance and privacy issues at large is unjustified. Privacy matters.

There was once a time when a team of agents would be required in order to track the movements of a single person. Due to financial constraints, governments had to be very selective in determining who they wished to track. That is no longer the case. As the Snowden leaks revealed, Western governments have constructed immensely powerful and efficient surveillance operations. Today, a single agent can track the movements and map the social relations of thousands of people. For the first time in human history, it has become both technologically and financially feasible for governments to keep records of nearly all of our lives. Yet, the expansion of this surveillance apparatus has largely taken place in the shadows. Governments did not consult the public before engaging in mass surveillance, despite these surveillance programs raising serious constitutional, legal, and ethical concerns. To this day, the Canadian government’s surveillance agencies operate with little oversight.

 The extent of the government’s surveillance capabilities combined with the lack of transparency in their operation is alarming. Governments have unprecedented access to information about their citizens, in turn shifting the balance of power between citizens and the state. The implications of the establishment of modern governmental surveillance technologies cannot be overlooked. Even if the current government uses the state’s surveillance capabilities responsibly, there are no guarantees that they will be used responsibly in the future. The mere existence of such potent surveillance technologies inherently runs the risk them one day being used to oppress the population it was originally created to protect.

Privacy rights are particularly important in democracies, in part because they support other critical rights, such as freedom of expression. Indeed, the health of any democracy is dependent on its citizens voicing their opinions freely, and without fear of reprisal. The fact that surveillance technologies could be used to identify and target political dissidents and other marginalized populations is thus disconcerting. Moreover, even if surveillance tools are never employed in an oppressive manner, history shows that the mere existence of a mass surveillance apparatus is enough to stifle free speech.[3] People behave differently when they know they are being watched. In the words of Glenn Greenwald, “A citizenry that is aware of always being watched quickly becomes a complacent and fearful one.”[4] For democracy to thrive, citizens must be free to communicate their thoughts and opinions outside of the government’s gaze.

Certainly, it is reasonable to argue that a degree of surveillance may be necessary to ensure the security of a population. However, condoning all government surveillance initiatives regardless of their scope because one has “nothing to hide” ignores the danger that violating privacy rights poses to society at large. Privacy remains a crucial ingredient of our democracy, and Canadians would be wise to defend it staunchly.

 

 Sources:

 [1] Quote from Edward Snowden’s presentation at McGill University on November 2nd, 2016 at 1:08:44.

<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4x8ZI0IaInE>

[2] “Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg Says the Age of Privacy Is Over.” ReadWrite, January 9 2010. <http://readwrite.com/2010/01/09/facebooks_zuckerberg_says_the_age_of_privacy_is_ov/>

[3] “Privacy and Democracy: What Geeks Understand that the Left Doesn’t.” Canadian Dimension, May 15 2015. https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/privacy-and-democracy-what-geeks-understand-that-the-left-doesnt

[4] Glenn Greenwald. No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the U.S Surveillance State. Metropolitan Books, 2014.