Why Privacy Matters

Why Privacy Matters

Terms such as data protection and digital privacy have become enormously important in recent years, especially after a number of major scandals. Nevertheless, so far this topic seems to concern almost only people with an interest in IT anyway. However, why these topics are important for every single person and for society as a whole is what this first part of the series of articles on data security is all about.

In mid-2014, Glenn Greenwald published news of the enormous extent of global surveillance by the NSA in the American magazine The Guardian on behalf of Edward Snowden. In early 2018, former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie revealed how Facebook, along with his former company, collected massive amounts of personal data without users' knowledge. Around such scandals, the interest and need to protect one's own data increases for a while, only to be lost again out of laziness or habit. However, such scandals are often only the tip of an iceberg, of which the largest part remains invisible.

Is not so bad

It is not uncommon to hear the opinion in conversations that this is not such a bad thing after all. On the contrary, even the long-time CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, expressed himself in this way: "If you're doing something that you don't want others to know about, then maybe you shouldn't do it in the first place." In Switzerland in particular, the argument is often used by bourgeois parties in connection with surveillance and data espionage: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear."

Arguing that you don't need privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don't need freedom of speech because you have nothing to say.

Edward Snowden

Not needing privacy, anyway, is a relatively strange claim: because no person would give me their mail or social media passwords 'because they have nothing to hide'. Or to take it to the extreme, you could just as well remove apartment and mailbox locks, since this is how you hide your own apartment or mail.

Behavior under observation

An intuitive truth, which has already been confirmed by various social science and psychological studies, is that our behavior changes when we feel observed. We are confronted with a "gaze" that, depending on our own behavior, could trigger a feeling of shame. All the greater is also the pressure in the presence of such a gaze to behave as expected, to conform. It is not even necessary that such a look exists. It is already enough to think that one is seen.

Source: pexels.com

Following this thought, the English social philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed the idea of the "Panopticon" in the 18th century. This describes a prison structure in which all inmates can be monitored by a single guard. The prisoners themselves do not know whether they are being monitored at any given time. However, since there is always the possibility of this, they behave conformably and as is expected of them as inmates. In the 20th century, Michel Foucault expanded this idea to the point that the idea of the panopticon could be applied in principle to any institution that seeks to control human behavior. That is, institutions such as schools, clinics, or factories. This structure, he argued, was the key to social control in modern societies.

Importance of privacy

Thus, privacy has less to do with the intention to hide things from others, but rather with possessing an individual freedom independent of external control, i.e. independent of an external "gaze". For means such as mass surveillance or data retention provide the perfect infrastructure for a global panopticon operating with private companies or states as "watchdogs". These may have the best of intentions, but there is never a guarantee. This makes privacy all the more important as a means to freedom. Even if one does not actively feel them, such structures limit the freedom of the individual enormously. Or in the words of Rosa Luxemburg: "He who does not move does not feel his fetters."

What fetters there are and what significance these fetters have specifically on individual freedom will follow next week in the second part of the series of articles on data security.

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