Privacy is About More Than Having Something to Hide

Edward Snowden’s release of information about how the National Security Administration is gathering information about people’s communications both in the United States and abroad raised the issue of privacy in the digital age. Unfortunately, the fact that the NSA is listening has become a punch line rather than a call to action.

Of course, the NSA is not the only one that is listening. The private sector is doing its best to gather information on all of us as well. Acxiom, a data mining company, recently has begun inviting people to long on and view what data it has collection on each one of us. Acxiom invites us to correct our data so that we can get ads that are more relevant to us. Every purchase we make with electronic means, every loyalty card we scan, every search we make is gathered and cataloged by people who want to manipulate our behavior.

Some people ask what is the big deal? Who cares that the government or corporations are building profiles on us? The most common refrain is: “if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about.”

But that misses the point. Privacy is not about having anything to hide. It is about our personal sovereignty. We don’t need to give everyone access to levers that make it easier to manipulating our habits. While the upside is that we are supposed to have an easier time finding those things that matter to us, the downside is that helping us find what we want is not necessarily the interested of those collecting the information. Instead, they are more interested in convincing us we want something that they have to sell. That may be something that is not good for us, or something that we don’t need.

There is another reason that privacy is critical for human beings. Privacy is what provides intimacy. Having everything out in the open deprives us of the ability to choose with whom we share things and what we share. Our hopes, our dreams, our fears are all part of make us who we are. And when we limit who we share them with, we get closer to those people. Our relationships have more meanings when we have inside jokes, shared experiences, and more understanding of those close to us than the rest of the world.

If everything is an open book, then we all are diminished in a way to a collection of facts and observations. If we all know everything, then it is harder to have shared experiences that make our shared lives special. These experiences, shared words, and inside jokes are not necessarily sinister or something to hide, but they are something to treasure. One determinant of value is rarity. Keeping things out of the public eye, out of databases, and away from marketing snoops, government snoops, and even the snoops in our personal circles makes those things more valuable.

If you are interested in other ideas about privacy, and why it is not about something to hide, take a look at Professor Daniel J. Solove’s essay “‘I’ve Got Nothing to Hide’ and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy.”

Additionally, when it comes to the realm of buying things, this article from Forbes Payment Privacy: Are untraceable Purchases Ever Okay? provides some interesting discussion points.


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