Why Privacy From Government Is Necessary For Everyone

The ACLU blog has a great post which explains how all of us have plenty to hide and why privacy is not just a right, but an integral part of human nature. The post focuses on privacy from the government, mostly because while almost everyone agrees that we need privacy from the general public, many people have much more relaxed attitudes about government snooping. Since the government is made up of people, that may seem like an arbitrary distinction until you realize that most people think of the government not as a group of people, but rather as an entity — a sort of deity that wants what’s good for us and protects us.

This is not the government. (Photo by Christopher Connell)


Therefore, the thinking goes for some, just like it’s okay if God knows what books you buy, when you go to sleep and what route you take to work, it’s also okay if the government does. This holds even though if your credit card statement, diary and GPS history ended up on the Internet, that would be an egregious breach. But every once in a while, the news reminds us that the two scenarios are in fact the same — and that one group of people (the government) is no better or worse than another group of people (Internet users) — via stories about abuse of power from government employees. For example, a month ago, a thousand UK government employees were disciplined for illegally accessing people’s work and medical records; in the US, news broke out last year that the FBI was abusing national security powers to get private information on people who weren’t national security risks.

This is the government. (Photo by Steve Shannon)


We give these institutions impersonal names like “the government” and “the police” which makes us forget that they are just a group like any other. So given that government is made up of people, a percentage of whom are bound to be less-than honorable, here are the ACLU’s list of reasons why you need to be able to hide things from them:

  • Certain things are just sensitive: maybe you don’t want anyone to know you have a third nipple, or that you’re pregnant, that you go to a mosque, that you constantly watch awful movies, that you have a crush on Kim Jong Un, etc, etc. The sum of things that are perfectly legal that you’d want to hide could fill a barn. And no one has any business knowing those things without you specifically letting them — not your coworkers, not your friends, your parents, your children, and definitely not police officers or other government workers. Even if you live you a life free of anything that anyone could object to and you are a completely open book, there’s always nudity: there’s no rational reason for it, but you probably don’t want anyone seeing you naked — government employees included.
  • Government workers make mistakes: since they’re just people, they’re fallible. Maybe as a result of just-for-the-hell-of-it surveillance, your crush on Kim Jong Un coupled with some email to your brother ranting about the war in Afghanistan and that copy of Mein Kampf you bought to see what the fuss was all about lands you on a watch list, or worse, in the middle of an investigation. The less data available about you, the less likely you’ll be harassed or wrongly prosecuted.
  • Discrimination based on normal things: one of the recent developments from all the data credit card companies have on us is that they decide credit worthiness based on your spending history. If you shop at cheap stores, maybe you don’t have a lot of money, so your credit will go down. If you frequent bars, maybe you have a drinking problem, so your credit will go down. If you buy a set of butcher knives and some lye, maybe police officers will rate you as more likely to kill someone. If you do a Google search on how to kill someone in their sleep, police officers might arrest you.
  • You’re already doing illegal things: laws being what they are, everyone is guilty of breaking one sooner or later. Maybe you speed, maybe you copied your friend’s CD, maybe you smoked pot in college, or got into a bar brawl: no one is innocent. The only thing saving you from fines and jail time right now is the fact that the government doesn’t know everything you do. Imagine the potential damage to your life if an ambitious prosecutor or a politician you crossed could get access to a video tape of your entire existence.

Therefore, until the day when the possibility for abuse and mistakes on the part of government employees is completely eradicated and until the day laws don’t make criminals out of all of us, the need for as much privacy as possible is absolutely paramount to our freedom.

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From ACLU, via Lifehacker