On digital privacy, Part 1: Why your privacy matters

This is the first part on a series I’m calling, “On digital privacy”, which goes into why digital privacy matters, how you can improve yours, and how to support ongoing movements in this front.

What is digital privacy?

You’re already familiar with privacy in the non-digital world: you probably close your curtains at night, and close the door when you use the restroom. Digital privacy is simply the digital extension of this. Everything you do–the sites you visit, the videos/movies/shows you watch, the comments you post, where you’ve been–generate data and are stored somewhere. Digital privacy is about protecting who has access to that data, whom it’s shared with, and what they do with that data. For example, you might post comments on an Internet forum. Those comments naturally have to be stored to facilitate discourse–people can reply to them, for example. That’s the expectation of what they do with that data. But what if that data was shared with your employers, friends/family? What if your boss disagrees with your political views and hinders your progression in the company because of it? Certainly, you’d be opposed to that use of your data.

Why should I care?

Here’s an experiment for those of you in the US: visit https://www.truepeoplesearch.com/, and search for your name. Chances are, it’ll pull up your address, age, relatives, and their details. For free. And this is completely legal, because the US has awful privacy laws that allow anyone to search public records (which is where this website gets the data). How comfortable are you with a disgruntled ex-lover having access to that information? Or a criminal? I thought so.

It goes further than that. Data mining has advanced to a point where analyzing this data and using it to your advantage has never been easier. Look no further than the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In the 2010s, a company called Cambridge Analytica collected data on millions on Facebook users through a Facebook app that presented a survey. Although the users consented to this survey, they (and Facebook) were unaware that the app also collected the users’ friend list and data about them. This allowed them to build extensive psychological profiles on everyone in their database. They used these profiles to micro-target sub-populations of the American voting population to influence the 2016 US Presidential election. Users’ data was used to influence their behaviors and politics.

In the US, the National Security Agency (NSA) has been known to perform mass surveillance on people both within and outside the US, as shown by the leaks by former NSA employee Edward Snowden, who had the high-level TS/SCI clearance. In his book, Permanent Record, he describes the horrifying extent of the NSA’s mass surveillance in the name of national security. For example, under the PRISM program, the NSA collects user data from US companies such as Google, Microsoft, Apple, and YouTube. Although some of the activities performed by the NSA are illegal, Snowden discusses how the agency was apathetic to the law. In the name of national security, the NSA applies for warrants to surveil citizens using secret, FISA courts. Of the nearly 34,000 warrants applied for between 1979-2012, only 11 were rejected, making the warrant application process a mere formality.

As another example, the Five Eyes is an alliance made by the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, where countries spy on each others’ citizens and share that information with each other. If spying on your own citizens is illegal, maybe other countries could spy on your citizens and share that with you instead, and you return the favor. Snowden has shown evidence that the Five Eyes has expanded to the Nine Eyes (which add Denmark, France, Norway, and the Netherlands), and the Fourteen Eyes (which add Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden).

Mass surveillance also affects people’s behavior. When people know they are being watched, their behavior changes. As an example, if you knew your boss was watching you at all times, would you feel free to express your issues regarding your boss and management with your colleagues? Surveillance limits free speech, and therefore privacy is a fundamental human right. Studies show that even the perception that you’re being surveilled suffices to change your behavior.

“But I have nothing to hide!”

…so what? What are you hiding when you close the door to the restroom? Or when you use a password for your email account? Surely, if you have nothing to hide, you’d be okay with people having free access. Besides the security standpoint, you do care about privacy; you just don’t see the connection. As Edward Snowden puts it, “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say”.

A law research professor has some good retorts for the “I have nothing to hide” crowd, one of which is, “Can I see your credit card bills for the last year?”. Moreover, as he says, “It’s not about having anything to hide; it’s about things not being anyone else’s business.” In addition, data mining now means that having collected data on you from multiple sources, it is easy to find information that you may want concealed. For example, Target was able to figure out that a woman was pregnant, based on her purchase history, even before she knew.

By joining pieces of information we might not take pains to guard, the government can glean information about us that we might indeed wish to conceal. For example, suppose you bought a book about cancer. This purchase isn’t very revealing on its own, for it indicates just an interest in the disease.

Suppose you bought a wig. The purchase of a wig, by itself, could be for a number of reasons. But combine those two pieces of information, and now the inference can be made that you have cancer and are undergoing chemotherapy. That might be a fact you wouldn’t mind sharing, but you’d certainly want to have the choice.

Professor Daniel J. Solove

Further, someone who is determined to do so can easily find something incriminating. As an example, the federal government famously does not know how many laws there are, and the current estimate is “nearly 10,000”. For example, it’s illegal to be in possession of a lobster under a certain size, regardless of how you came to possess it. Someone determined can go through your emails, your texts, and your social media posts and comments and find one of the 10,000 regulations that you’ve broken.

Also, consider the broader picture where the universe doesn’t revolve around you: there are other countries with totalitarian regimes, where having a controversial opinion could mean being sentenced to death. In such places, it is vital that we preserve free speech among citizens by bolstering their privacy. It would be a tragedy if the government had free reign to spy on its citizens, identify those with dissenting opinions, and capture them. Another example is China’s social credit system. At first glance, it seems like a reasonable idea: people who do good things have a higher social credit score and therefore access to government resources, and those who do bad things, such as criminal activity, are punished with a low score that rescinds those facilities. However, who decides what is good or bad? For example, a journalist was banned from booking a flight due to a tweet he posted.


There’s a lot of links I haven’t covered, simply due to the sheer volume of them discussing the importance of privacy and the problems with the “nothing to hide” argument. Privacy is and should be treated as a first-class human right, and it enables free speech. Further posts in this series will discuss how to improve your privacy online.

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