Our privacy has a greater value than we realise

Last year, the National Security Agency (NSA) was exposed for monitoring and logging millions of internet users online information in a large surveillance program called PRISM. Immediately after the revelations were made, the White House rushed to the defence of the program, with Barack Obama insisting the public can’t have “100% privacy without 0% inconvenience”, arguing that the NSA program is necessary to fight terrorism. Many see these grounds as legitimate, with those in support of state surveillance sometimes reasoning, “If you’ve got nothing to hide, what’s your concern?” But what if we do have a concern, and don’t have anything to hide? The truth is we need to take a second look at the dangers underlying the thinking that is so casually used to justify the state’s dismantling of our privacy, as well as the public’s apparent indifference to this.

The problem with the heuristic idea of “security first, liberty second” is that, whenever there is any possibility that life might be compromised, privacy ends up being compromised. This might not initially sound like a problem. Intuitively, we might agree that there is sanctity to human life such that sacrifices have to be made for the sake of its protection – the essence of social contract theory. But the problem with this thinking is that it unquestionably assumes a higher ordinal value in the ends achieved than in the means compromised. The result of this is, that as long as “the lives of others” are supposedly at risk, those who implement such measures have a justification for their actions, and no relative comparison needs to be made between what is gained and what is lost. Implicit to this idea is the notion that by defending the right to privacy at the expense of security one is compromising human life. 

But privacy has a value – a value that can credibly compete with the result of not having privacy – and yes, that can sometimes mean human life.  There are other potential dangers of storing mass information, for example, if it falls into the hands of the ‘wrong people’. Others cite the fact that government access to communication undermines the abilities of the press to question the activities of the state without fear of reprisal.

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However, the most convincing way that privacy can be shown to be valuable requires less of a stretch of the imagination, and can simply be demonstrated by considering the Sorites paradox. This paradox is usually explained with reference to heaps of something, such as heaps of sand or heaps of hay. The paradox is that assuming that removing a single grain of sand from a heap of sand does not turn a heap into a non-heap, what arises when the process is repeated multiple times – that is, will one grain of sand still be a heap? If not then when did the heap change into a non-heap? The crux is that it seems the difference between a heap and a non-heap is rather vague. With this in mind, similar considerations can be made with regards to privacy: that is, the difference between a society in which its inhabitants enjoy and benefit from freedom, and a society in which privacy is completely extinct.

In fact, a free society can dissolve into dystopia through a succession of compromises made on privacy, where each compromise at the time was justified, but which taken together create a society which is deeply undesirable to live in. At some point, the freedoms we hand over to the government need to stop – even if the immediate cost of preserving them appears on the face of it to be far outweighed by the alleged dangers of not handing them over.

The NSA revelations reveal  the arrogance of the state’s assumptions about what the public values, by the very fact that the government makes these decisions on behalf of the public. But the public has a right to assign their own value to their privacy, and to make their own mind up over what freedoms they want to compromise and for what ends. Of course, some compromises of privacy can be necessary. Some might argue, for example, that the NHS’s recent plans to sell patient records to pharmaceutical companies is an infringement of privacy, but that it ultimately results in better research and more effective medicine. The point is, however, that although this policy might save lives; this doesn’t make it self-evidently correct. Instead, every exchange of privacy for whatever ‘greater good’ we’re being sold needs a case-by-case, rigorous and transparent assessment, with the immediate welfare of citizens considered on one hand, but the type of society we want to live in on the other.