I've been having some interesting discussions about privacy lately, because it's a topic that is a bit more complex than a lot of people are willing to admit. Pretty much every choice you make in life is about tradeoffs, and that applies to privacy as well. Leaving your home and walking down the street is a form of a "tradeoff" in that when you go outside, other people can see you, and that, in some ways, is a "violation" of your privacy. But most of us determine that going out in public is worth it, because there are lots of benefits to being able to leave your house, while there are very few negatives to having someone see you on the street. The same is true, in many ways, online. There are situations in which we find the sharing of information to be much more valuable than the costs. It's why people sign up for online services. They know they're giving up some information and "privacy," but the value of the service they get back is considered worth it. We can quibble over whether or not people can accurately measure the costs and benefits of those tradeoffs, and I think that's an important and valuable discussion to have, but the idea of "absolute" privacy is crazy. You can do that, but the tradeoff is you don't go outside and you don't use the internet. Good luck with that.
The real problem
tends to come in when the privacy violations are done in ways that were not a part of the bargain
. I may choose to give a company some level of access to my email, because I value the result. But if I then find out that they're doing much more than promised with it, or
more seriously, that a third party, such as the government, is digging into that same info, just because they can, that's quite different. That wasn't part of the tradeoff deal that I made.
Tim Bray has an interesting article touching on this subject, over at Medium, in which he notes that privacy is a part of a civilized society
, and that we shouldn't have to defend the basic concept of privacy from those who seek to take it by force. He isn't talking so much about the tradeoffs, but rather what happens when there are no tradeoffs at all, and the government just decides that it can take away your privacy because it can:
Privacy doesn't need any more justification. It's a quality-of-life thing and needs no further defense. We and generations of ancestors have worked hard to build a civilized society and one of the rewards is that often, we can relax and just be our private selves. So we should resist anyone who wants to take that away.
He further points out that the real problem is that law enforcement always has and almost always will abuse their power to violate your privacy without any control or benefit to you:
The public servants who are doing the watching are, at the end of the day, people. Mostly honorable and honest; but some proportion will always be crooked or insane or just bad people; no higher than in the general population, but never zero. I don't think Canada, where I live, is worse than anywhere else, but we see a pretty steady flow of police brutality and corruption stories. It's a fact of life.
Given this, it's unreasonable to give people the power to spy on us without factoring in checks and balances to keep the rogues among them from wreaking havoc.
And this is where the tradeoffs come back into play. When I choose
to give up some level of privacy, I have some control over the situation, and that's a form of a check and balance. I can choose to limit how I use the services or what I share. That's not true when the government just goes digging and pulls out whatever it wants. And then they can abuse it, often with impunity.
I think it's a little too simple that we should be able to say across the board "I don't want to be watched," because there are lots of situations where we agree to be in public. But when it becomes a forced
observation, and there's no control, then there are serious problems.