July 09, 2015
When the issues of data privacy and mass surveillance pops up, the argument “I have nothing to hide” is uttered all too often. It is a statement which is difficult to counter convincingly with a generalized argument. The lack of a short, convincing response causes many to assume the issue unimportant and without consequence. It also makes it a lot easier for proponents of mass privacy intrusion to legitimize the surveillance systems.
The problem with most discussions on privacy is that they attempt to define privacy as a simple idea with tight boundaries. Individual privacy is a complex concept. Discussions on it become meaningless quickly when the definition is too simplistic. Privacy can be violated in a multitude of ways.
One mode of invasion is by way of information collection. This is the mode most people consider when talking about individual privacy and it affects peoples’ actions.
The intrusion happens when personal data is collected without consent. Harm is done to people because surveillance causes inhibitions and is used for social control. This affects peoples’ ability and urge to employ free speech, freedom of association, freedom of creation and identity development. To name but a few.
Another mode of invasion is by way of information processing. This mode is seldom acknowledged and it affects the power relationship between people and the institutions which influence their lives.
This type of privacy intrusion happens when the institutions holding the information act with it in negligent ways such as indifference, abuse, erroneous application and lack of transparency. It is often systemic problems where no single individual has any malintent towards the affected person. Harm is done to people because it makes them powerless to act or improve their positions. For example when a mistyped passport number prevents a person to travel to a destination which he has every right to visit.
The usual discussions on privacy over simplify the data gathering issue and completely disregards the data processing issue. When the full complexity of personal privacy is considered, a multitude of current and potential privacy violations are highlighted which just never are on the table when the “I have nothing to hide” version is presented. Those in favour of mass surveillance and social control will continue promoting this viewpoint to keep those atrocities out of the public mind.
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