Millennium Post

How private is privacy?

How private is privacy?
It is no coincidence that my pessimism gained ground around the time Edward Snowden revealed to the world that virtually every byte of online information is being collected, saved, searched and analysed by the US government.

Even the discerning few who had suspected that online surveillance was afoot must be taken aback by the sheer reach of these systems. The implementation of online mass surveillance programs without any public dialogue on the powers and limitations of the executive makes a mockery of existing democratic processes. Ironically, these democratic values are those that India – and most certainly the US – takes pride in. Strangely, most citizens do not seem to care. If you are not viewing child pornography or organising cyber attacks, what is the worry? Do you have something to hide? I suspect a good proportion of Britons are familiar with this rationale, having been fed this justification through clever government campaigns trying to sell the idea of Big Brother to its citizens.

Unfortunately, this is an oversimplification of the motives for wanting to keep certain information private. One of the most troubling facets of this debate is the tendency to conflate the notions of privacy and secrecy. Daniel Solove, who has worked on privacy and information technology, has debunked this theory by establishing that privacy is not about ‘hiding bad things’. Additionally, as security expert Bruce Schneier has explained, loss of privacy can inhibit such lawful activities as free speech, free association and other fundamental rights essential for democracy.

Whatever one’s political and philosophical leanings, it is hard to deny the debilitating impact of mass surveillance on society. Primo Levi, in his book Survival in Auschwitz, explains how solitude was more valuable than bread during his captivity in the concentration camp. Recently, Pamela Jones, the proprietor of Groklaw, an online repository of information for the open-source and open-access community, expressed anguish at the dehumanising effect of ‘forced exposure’, creating an environment in which it becomes difficult to operate even legitimate businesses. Jones shut down the service after the surveillance programs of the National Security Agency came to light. I can think of at least two groups of professionals for whom privacy remains indispensable – journalists and lawyers. For the former, safeguarding the identity of an anonymous source is often vital for continued cooperation; for the latter, client-attorney privacy privilege lies at the heart of legal practice. Perhaps, one may take comfort in the inadmissibility of illegally retrieved information in a court proceeding.

But jeopardising the safety of a trusted source or the potentially devastating consequences from the inadvertent disclosure of a client’s conduct will hang heavy on the conscience. The ‘passive acceptance’ of such mass surveillance programmes by journalists and lawyers is a cause for concern, and John Naughton of The Guardian has rightly bemoaned their inaction.

By arrangement with Down to Earth magazine
Amlan Mohanty

Amlan Mohanty

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