Privacy matters

7 Jul

In this post September 11, 2001 world, concerns about terrorist activity seem to be, well, elevated–kind of like the government’s threat assessment level. (Today we’re at yellow, which means, um, Bert I guess. We’re really in trouble if we get to Elmo.)

In the name of protecting Americans and national security, the government is doing more snooping around than it perhaps used to. Our phone calls, emails, banking transactions and more are being monitored by the federal government. In South Bend, new police cameras have gone up at several intersections as “crime prevention tools.” The FBI can go into bookstores and libraries and find out what kind of books we’re buying or checking out.

Supporters of these practices argue that it helps make us safer. I think they are wrong, since what we’re doing is requiring our limited human resources to examine even more and more data looking for suspicious activity. What we’re finding are more and more wild goose chases, and the occasional success story seems even more like a lucky break than anything else. But there’s another reason I don’t like these invasive practices.

I value my privacy.

Now, some will say that if I have nothing to hide, what’s the big deal?

I do have stuff to hide.

It’s not evidence of criminal activity or even any bad behavior. It’s just stuff that I consider to be nobody else’s business. All of us have stuff to hide. For some, it may be a picture of a significant other from long ago that we like to keep around as a memento of fond times. For others, it may be music that they enjoy listening to but don’t necessarily want to admit to their friends. (Come on, all you fans of Donny Osmond, be proud of your musical tastes.) It might be a favorite tee shirt that you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing in public, but that your spouse tolerates with a smile and a shake of the head.

We all value our privacy in one way or another. We have doors on our homes, curtains or shades on our windows. We close the door to the bathroom. We become quiet in crowded elevators. We whisper things to our loved ones that we don’t want others to hear. Some women refuse to open the door if they are not presentable. We don’t leave our bank statements around for our co-workers to see how much money we have (or don’t have) sitting in the bank. We don’t want people reading our diaries or journals–those are private thoughts.

Having privacy is necessary to live. When we lose our privacy, we feel uneasy. People who have had their homes broken into often report a sense of feeling violated somehow–not that they had things stolen, but that someone had been in their home. Most people don’t like being outside in their pajamas. We cringe when someone drops by and the house is a mess.

Surveillance is uncomfortable. Anyone who has ever thought they were being followed can tell you this. But when the surveillance is accompanied by the authority of the government, it becomes downright awful. Think of it this way. When we’re driving on the highway and we see a police car, usually the first thing we do is glance at the speedometer to make sure we’re obeying the law. (Even police officers admit to doing this when they are off duty.) If we see that we were over the limit, we feel a bit of panic and we hope that the officer didn’t notice us. If the police car happens to turn on its flashing lights, we feel a sense of relief when the car passes by us, apparently after some other person. Our offense–speeding–is a trifle, but we still worry about the officer’s wide range of authority. He can arrest us if he mistakenly believes we committed a crime. That’s a lot of power, and even the best, most honest police officers can make mistakes.

The fact of the matter is that we behave differently when we’re being watched by someone in a position of authority. A group of teenagers laughing at someone’s humorous story quiets down when they walk past a police officer. We take our foot off the accelerator. We worry that we might be doing something–anything–that will raise an officer’s suspicions about us. We may not even realize that we are doing it, but we are.

One cannot help but think of George Orwell’s masterpiece, 1984. Every resident has a telescreen in the home, which can be used by the government to broadcast its propaganda and to listen in. As Winston Smith noted in the book, since you didn’t know when the government was actually listening, you always assumed that you were being overheard. And therefore you always watched what you said.

Living like that is oppressive–as many former Soviet citizens will tell you. Without our privacy, we become overly self-conscious about what we say, what we write in an email, or where we go. We lose a bit of our humanity, our dignity. And that’s not a price anyone should have to pay for anything. Yes, some say that your privacy doesn’t mean much if you are dead. That may be true, but privacy means a hell of a lot while we’re alive.

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