In Defense of Privacy

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I have written about privacy for years, yet nobody, except for a small group of vocal, and maybe paranoid, activists ever cared. Besides, what could be so dangerous about Google knowing what ZIP code I live in or the government knowing about my travel plans? Didn’t they know anyway?

Yes and no… Sure if I traveled by air it seems logical that the government wanted to know, but it wasn’t always so. And yes, from some point on, Google probably knew where I was searching from and, by design, what I was searching for. So why mention it?

We have come a long way since then. Today Google and Amazon probably know more about me than my Mom. The government has a better record of whom I communicated with than I do, every phone number I called, every email, every text message, and probably one or two dick pics as well…

I grew up in post-war Germany, a country that struggled for decades with its history and to some extend still does. Germans learned the hard way what happened when desperate people were drawn to simplistic populist messages and promises to fix their problems, and no, I am not trying to compare Trump to Hitler, no matter how tempting… Their privacy eroded until there was little left and paranoid people were telling on each other in desperate attempts to please the authorities to safe their own necks. East Germany still had the Stasi until January 30, 1990, less than 30 years ago. Maybe that’s why I am so concerned, because I see parallels…

Privacy doesn’t disappear in one big swoop, no, on the contrary, it evaporates slowly, just like the frog that remains in a pot while the temperature increases until it’s dead. If someone would have suggested 20 years ago to record and store all my web searches, financial transactions, personal and business communications, purchases, and personal photographs I would have screamed bloody murder. You probably would have too!

But this is exactly what the government and major corporations all around the globe are doing every day. Instead of outrage about their blatant violation of our privacy , we agree to ridiculous terms and conditions statements nobody ever reads and discuss who should have access to the data. I look at Hyatt hotels in Honolulu on priceline.com and minutes later Hyatt is advertising special pricing of their Hawaiian properties in my Facebook feed. Or look at an article I wrote about the Sony Hack from 2011. Granted the guy was breaking the law, but he was using a VPN subscription service (HideMyAss) which was supposedly protecting his identity…

Until Edward Snowden told the world about the US and UK governments’ extensive spying and hacking operations most of us didn’t even know what was happening behind closed doors. Even today governments are hiding behind ‘national security’ to conceal their illegal acts. Sure, we all want to be safe, but does privacy really impede public safety as the government implies?

Unless you live in a universe of ‘alternate facts’ the data suggests otherwise. So far there has been no justification of blanket surveillance, neither has it become illegal to protect yourself from government and corporate intrusion. This clearly suggests that either personal privacy is not a problem or public safety isn’t the goal. If we really wanted to protect our fellow citizens from dying, our collective money would be better spend on road safety and healthcare, just to mention two examples actually supported by data. But no, we chose to develop ever more sophisticated technology to spy on people or to wipe them out all together, using our offspring as pawns on battlefields and billions of dollar weaponry, while simultaneously denying the tax payers healthcare because it is too expensive. Right…

Back to privacy though… There is a purpose for surveillance and reason for curtailing personal privacy and that is control, both social and ideological as eluded to in the Stasi example above. Democracy and the open exchange of ideas cannot flourish in an atmosphere of fear of persecution. Who will be brave enough to share their opinions and face the wrath of a Fox-news-watching-bully on Twitter or FBI intimidation if they happen to live in the US?

If we continue down this path, instead of sharing our thoughts freely, we might end up with a society in which people will develop two distinct personae. One persona that is sanitized for public scrutiny and another that is vibrant, creative and real, but reserved for family and close friends. So instead of a vibrant rich public life with flourishing creative ideas, we might be moving towards a stagnant society of boring conformist about as diverse and exciting as pack of sleeping pills.

Privacy is important and we all need to do our part to protect it, but it doesn’t just mean the right to share our thoughts and ideas without others knowing their content, but also that there is nothing illegal about doing so. To paraphrase Edward Snowden, saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is akin to saying that you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.

Edward Snowden was talking about what he considers to be illegal or at least immoral government spying and hacking activities, but there is a lot more to it. Apparently not all computer hackers operate out of their parents’ basements in Russia or China, instead many are funded by the taxpaying public, unaware of what their money is really being used for. As outlined above, national security and protecting the public are effective justifications, yet unsubstantiated reasons for doing so.

Businesses too are gobbling up massive amounts of our personal data, from sex, age, location to sexual orientation, who our family and friends are, what we like to read and how we shop for airline tickets. Their rational is something along the lines of wanting to provide us with a better user/shopping experience, while in truth it is all about selling us more stuff and trying to figure out what we might be most susceptible to buying at any given time.

Whatever the justification, polls show that a lot of people are concerned about both governmental surveillance and data collection by businesses around the globe, yet neither is even skipping a beat, governments are still going full speed ahead archiving everything you and I do online and corporations even got more leeway to sell our browsing habits to the highest bidder. If anything awareness and scrutiny are increasing while posting of private data on Facebook and Twitter et. al. continues.

In contrast to what you might be thinking at this moment, privacy isn’t dead yet, no matter how many people insist on its departure into the afterlife. Sadly whatever we have shared and whatever is already stored about us isn’t likely to be deleted anytime soon. To the contrary, as computing power increases and connecting those data points becomes easier the picture of our private lives will become clearer.

What we can do however, is to stop indiscriminate sharing, to encrypt everything, use VPNs, HTTPS-Everywhere, Tor, Protonmail or whatever is available where you might be living.
What we can’t do is to stick our heads in the sand and sit idle by or worse despair while our privacy and rights are being eroded, because if we do, they win and we all lose.

Change starts with a single person and that person, dear reader, is you!

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