Privacy and surveillance

Alex Reinhart – Updated January 30, 2024 notebooks ·

I am usually frustrated by discussions of privacy, which usually treat it as an end to itself, or only beneficial to people who have “something to hide.” But in discussions about, say, government surveillance programs, privacy isn’t about hiding things—it’s a check on government power. In pithy terms: you don’t get to decide if you have something to hide. The people invading your privacy do, and their decision can have all sorts of negative consequences for you.

This also explains why invasions of privacy are harmful even if they are secret: secret surveillance still represents unchecked government power, making unaccountable secret decisions. Think of Kafka’s The Trial, not Orwell’s 1984.

On the commercial side, privacy is discussed mainly as protecting private data: certain kinds of data are “private”, and releasing them is bad. Anonymization, consent, and other measures are used to protect private data. But this does not address what the harms really are, or what it means for companies to use data to make decisions.

See also Surveillance capitalism, Interpretable and explainable models, Algorithmic due process, Online advertising, and Predictive policing on policing and privacy (in the form of 4th Amendment searches).

Phillip Rogaway’s The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work is a good argument in favor of the defense of privacy against mass surveillance.

The nature of privacy

Privacy behavior

How do people actually behave when making decisions about privacy?

Government surveillance

Anonymization and privacy protection

Privacy regulations