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Modern field guide to security and privacy

Opinion: Privacy isn't dead. Here's why

The 'Snowden' biopic is reviving the global privacy debate. But for anyone who thinks it's dead, the notion that individuals want control over their personal information is hardly passé.

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    Actor Joseph Gordon Levitt listens to a question in Spanish through headphones during a news conference to promote the "Snowden" biopic at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain.
    Vincent West/Reuters
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Joseph Gordon-Levitt may have a charming smile, but the "Snowden" biopic in which he's currently starring is still pretty frightening.

Whether you agree with Edward Snowden's actions or not, the scale of classified information the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor leaked provided a stark reminder that our privacy is under attack.

And it's not just threatened by the NSA. Corporations also have significant impact on privacy, too. For instance, since Facebook uses phone and email contacts to find "people you may know," one psychiatrist recently complained the social media giant started suggesting her patients "friend" one another. That's not how the psychiatrist – nor her clients – really expected their information was going to be used.

But even though people still seem to care about the use of their data, and taking ownership of their personal information, why do so many headlines proclaim "privacy is dead."

It's because we are talking about privacy in the wrong ways. Privacy is not about secrecy. It's about autonomy. It's about having the freedom to choose what information you share, and when, how and with whom you share it.

Two of the biggest misconceptions about privacy are that people don’t care about it, and that they only want it if they have something to hide.

The argument that people don’t care about privacy anymore since many people share so much information on the web is flawed. That assertion ignores the fact that individuals who share information or communicate on social media are choosing to do so. People should be able to decide whether they broadcast every moment of their lives or whether they don't engage in social media. Or, they can select what bits of their lives to share, and what needs to remain private.

I make that kind of choice every day. I use my Twitter account regularly, and almost exclusively to share news stories or information related to my work. But occasionally, I choose to share a personal detail about my life, like a video of my dog.

Pew Research Center study shows I'm not alone. It found that 74 percent of Americans consider it "very important" that they be able to control what information others can access about them, and 86 percent of internet users have taken steps to anonymize their online activity.

But it also found that "many Americans struggle to understand the nature and scope of data collected about them," and that they do attempt to make "risk-benefit" calculations about how their personal information will be shared and exploited when determining which services and products to use.

People need to understand their choices and the ramifications of their decisions to share information, because invasions of privacy are not about revealing someone’s secrets; they are about taking their autonomy away from them. 

More concerning is the common refrain that you don’t need to worry about your privacy if you have "nothing to hide." But privacy is not the same as secrecy. 

Even when people have not committed crimes, wronged no person, and never embarrassed themselves, they still may not want certain things about them revealed to the public.

While no one is perfect, most people are law-abiding, and in that sense, have "nothing to hide." Yet, public reactions to news of government surveillance show individuals care about their privacy even when they have "nothing to hide."

Polls repeatedly show Americans value their privacy highly and do not think they should have to sacrifice it for national security. Further, news of mass surveillance had a significant negative impact on the US economy.

It resulted in incalculable costs to tech companies and moved the industry to respond to its users' demands for better privacy and stronger security by offering full disc encryption like the iPhone's iOS8, and an explosion of end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Signal.

People using these or similar anonymizing services may be trying to hide. Some of them may be criminals. But many of them are political dissidents in repressive regimes, or activists in the US who fear unlawful targeting by the police. They may be victims of domestic violence trying to protect their attempts to get help from their abusive partners.

They may be members of the armed services seeking anonymity so opposing fighters don't target them. Or they may be Average Janes and Joes searching online for medical, financial, or emotional help; seeking religion or a community where they will feel at home; or just shopping for clothes and shoes, reading news articles, watching too many cat videos, and staying in touch with family and friends.

The point is that everyone wants and needs privacy.

Sometimes being able to choose what, when, how, and with whom we share information is a matter of life or death. Other times it's a matter of how we define and express – whether we censor ourselves, or whether we dive deeply into our passions and ideas because we can do so without fear of judgment from the government or from society.

Privacy is core to the human experience and we must all fight to keep it strong.

Robyn Greene is the policy counsel and government affairs lead for the Open Technology Institute at New America specializing in issues concerning surveillance and cybersecurity. Follow her on Twitter at @Robyn_Greene.

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