Privacy and surveillance

Alex Reinhart – Updated February 26, 2017 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.

See also 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

There is a divide in conceptions of privacy between America and Europe, explored in a surprisingly lucid (for a law review) article by Whitman:

He points out that in Europe, privacy is largely about dignity: the right to controlling your own public image and being free from insult or disparagement. This means, for example, that nude models have privacy rights in photographs of them, and may refuse their publication, even if the photographer clearly holds the copyright in the photographs. Similarly, credit reporting agencies exist in Europe in very limited form compared to America, since financial matters are nobody else’s business unless you are bankrupt or in default. Americans, on the other hand, largely conceive of privacy as protection against government interference.

(I can see a connection here between American and European views on copyright, particularly with the European notion of “author’s rights”, which extend beyond mere property rights to an inherent right of authors to control their work. See my review of The Public Domain; see also Copyright and intellectual property.)

Daniel Solove took the privacy-as-liberty argument to perfection:

Solove also wrote a book, Nothing to Hide, but I found it disappointingly oversimplified, with minimal discussion of opposing views or in-depth analysis of the issues.

Anonymization and privacy protection

Corporate use of personal data

Privacy and due process