Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Hide: The Dangers of Surveillance

I spend a lot of time trawling the internet, ostensibly in the name of research. Recently, I joined an online debate on ‘Kialo‘ arguing around the statement that ‘We Should Abolish Privacy‘. In this hypothetical, all information about everything is contained on a free-to-use, publicly accessible database.

The contributors made some interesting points, both for and against, and if you have the time I’d advise you to go and take a look for yourself. Some argued that social welfare would be improved, both in terms of fairly providing for the needs of individuals and in catching benefit frauds. Another argued that journalistic and political integrity would be improved. Another yet told me, unequivocally, that it would be the end of crime, and everyone would be much safer.

My first thoughts on the matter were about just how disastrous such an endeavour would be.

Firstly, let’s address the safety issue. Consider the effect of the internet in making private information more accessible. Yes, it has led to huge advances in technology, education and commerce, but it has also (in my opinion), led to a dangerous misunderstanding of the nature of democracy. Consider the proliferation of ‘Electronic Frontier Justice’, the public naming-and-shaming of supposed wrongdoers. The world of social media doesn’t need to wait on courtrooms, evidence, or due process. Consider the huge proliferation of online petitions, ‘angry voices’, and bloggers (irony noted) sharing their opinions. Many of these are noble pursuits. Many of these are uninformed knee-jerk reactions made on the spur of the moment.

I don’t consider living under the ‘tyranny of the majority’ to be any safer than the tyranny of an elected government. If anything, it sounds wildly more dangerous.

Second, and on the topic of the state, even IF such a system would improve social welfare and political integrity, does that mean we should be unskeptical of big government? Absolutely not. Let us remember the old quote from Cardinal Richelieu, first minister to the King of France in the 1620’s, 30’s and 40’s:

If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.

Any individual or organisation (including a government), if given enough time, and with sufficient motive, can find something in an individual’s life in order to prosecute/persecute that individual. Embarrassing medical conditions? Deviant sexual fetishes? Controversial religious/political views? None of these things are illegal, but all of them may be worth hiding from the public eye.

And, as psychoanalyst Emilio Mordini argues, privacy is not in what we hide, but in having the power to hide something. This sort of system would remove an individual’s power to keep this information private – now, whether that power instead belonged to a government or the masses is irrelevant, as, on a fundamental level, individual liberty would be dead, or at the very least severely limited.

In line with my interest in individuality, I would that such a tool would undermine the very essence of being human. In his paper “Nothing to Hide”, Mordini argues that, psychologically speaking, we become individuals through the discovery that we can hide something from others (we don’t have to hide anything to be an individual, but we must have the capacity to hide things) – this is what separates us from an otherwise collective society. Privacy is not in what we hide per se, but in having the power to hide something.

Too many people wrongly understand this debate as one of ‘security versus privacy’. The real choice here is one of ‘liberty versus authority’.

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