Each day, people adopt technologies and accept policies that ask them to trade privacy for greater convenience or perceived security: from smart home devices, to facial recognition scans at the airport, to endorsing legislation such as the Patriot Act. For many people, this discussion ends with “Well, I have nothing to hide.” That is, nothing I do is incriminating, so I don’t care who accesses my information.
The need for privacy may seem remote—the concern of bad actors and citizens of far-off Orwellian states—when in reality, privacy is under threat across the globe. One only has to look to the US government’s warrantless surveillance of citizens’ and non-citizens’ online activities or China and India’s use of state technology programs to target ethnic minorities.
Privacy underpins a healthy democracy, and ensures our freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. The erosion of privacy is something that affects all people, even those who have nothing to hide.
A little data goes a long way
The argument that a lack of privacy isn’t a problem if you’re not doing anything problematic usually builds on the assumption that our individual data is useless. And while data collected in one moment may be trivial on its own, privacy researchers reveal that everything you do online is logged in obscene detail.
All these data points are aggregated to build a digital profile, which follows you across the web and dictates your digital experiences, customizing everything you see online to optimize engagement, clicks, and purchases. This process of segmenting people based on personal details is known as microtargeting.
While microtargeting curates our online experience according to our interests, which may seem like a good thing, it is a powerful tool that comes with a high social cost. The same technology is also used by companies to distort our mood, modify our behavior, and alter purchasing patterns with a flood of targeted ads, videos, and stories—mostly without our consent.
Technology touches nearly every part of our lives, and each detail of what you did and when you did it is used to better understand who you are, why you make certain decisions, and how you’ll respond in future situations.
If you’ve felt like it’s harder to have a healthy dialogue about politics lately, you also have microtargeting to thank. Microtargeting is weaponized by political campaigns and special interest groups to enflame tension, spew misinformation, and create hyper-partisan communities. It filters out all conflicting ideas to the detriment of our healthy democracy: When everything you see reinforces your current beliefs, you understandably become less open-minded.
An active exchange of data for free or discounted access to a product is a decision everyone is entitled to make. What the nothing-to-hide argument fails to capture is that most data collection and aggregation happens passively, without your consent. And once it’s collected, it basically lives forever. Data already influences police practices, the matches you see on dating apps, your job opportunities, insurance rates, and housing options. Are you sure you want your past online behavior to decide your future?
Mass surveillance hasn’t made us safer
Often the need for citizens to forfeit personal privacy is framed in the context of curbing organized crime, but a lack of privacy has a much larger effect on how everyday people go about their lives than it does on criminals or terrorists. According to attorney and educator Jennifer Granick, “almost every major terrorist attack on Western soil in the past fifteen years was committed by someone already on the government’s radar for one or another reason.”
There is little evidence that our governments’ indiscriminate bulk data collection through legislation such as the Patriot Act has thwarted any terrorist attacks. There’s also no evidence to show that the inconvenient and invasive experiences we endure at airports lead to security. The Department of Homeland Security was able to smuggle guns and bombs past Transit Security Administration (TSA) airport officials at a staggering 95% success rate. What are we truly gaining in exchange for our privacy?
Privacy isn’t about hiding
The nothing-to-hide argument frames privacy as something only criminals and other bad actors would demand, but nothing could be further from the truth. Privacy is about the freedom to make choices without fear: how you want to live, what you believe in, who you are friends with, and what you want to share with whom. A lack of privacy leads to uniformity and self-censorship, which pushes our opinions to the edges and erodes our ability to engage in healthy debate.
Ultimately, privacy also protects us from the unknown. Circumstances change. Something that can be harmlessly shared today may someday be worth concealing; whether its political beliefs, or your ethnic or religious background. Privacy is the ultimate insurance against a rapidly changing corporate and political climate. Once we lose our privacy, we won’t get it back.