Why online privacy is important
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
Sometime in the late 1780s, renowned English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of the Panopticon (meaning “all observed”), a prison fiendishly devised so that a single guard can watch all the inmates.
The genius of this design is that, while the guard is clearly unable to watch all the prisoners all the time, there is no way for the prisoners to know when they are being watched. In order to avoid punishment they are thus forced to behave as if being watched at all times.
Mass government surveillance of the kind performed by the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) sweeps up for more data than can possibly be analyzed. A leaked report by the UK’s MI5 security service, for example, notes that:
“These challenges increase when this material occurs in high volume for multiple targets... This creates a real risk of ‘intelligence failure’ i.e. from the Service being unable to access potentially life-saving intelligence from data that it has already collected.”
In other words, the amount of data being collected is actively hampering the investigation of criminal activities.
If the real aim was to catch terrorists, pedophiles, and other criminals who pose a clear and present danger to the public, then governments would be spending resources on finding ways to narrow down the search and sift more effectively through relevant data. Instead, they pass an ever-increasing number of laws that facilitate the collection of even more data. Why?
Let’s return to the Panopticon. Mass government surveillance of the kind exposed by Edward Snowden clearly has little to do with catching criminals, and is in reality a censorship tool designed to restrict access to information and dampen dissenting political discourse.
Rather than create public outrage by outright denying access to resources, it fosters fear and paranoia. A cowed public that is always looking over its shoulder is not in a strong position to challenge an all-seeing political and economic elite.
They self-censor what they say in forums, they are careful about which search terms they enter, and they will avoid visiting websites which they feel may reflect badly on them to the government. In his seminal novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell said presciently,
“You have to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”
What Mr. Orwell could never have predicted, however, is the way in which modern society has not only invited surveillance into our homes, but is gladly willing to pay for it. Big brother does not need to impose two-way telescreens into every home when consumers are falling over themselves to purchase always-on and always-listening Alexa, Siri, and Google Home devices!
The huge amount of tracking and profiling of our every online move by commercial companies is arguably less pernicious than mass government surveillance, in that their motive is simply to make money.
But it comes at huge cost, as surveillance designed to provide bulk detailed models of our browsing and (most importantly) spending habits, in order to target us with ever more personalized ads, is far more invasive to our privacy than even the NSA’s most megalomaniacal ambitions could ever encompass.
Not even the most optimistic beneficiary of today’s hugely unequal global systems could hand-on-heart argue that we live in a utopia - the best of all possible worlds.
Yet without privacy the opportunity for change and improvement is hampered to the point of becoming all but impossible. Privacy is a prerequisite for open and honest discourse, for discussing different models for how the world can be, and how it can be made better.
Mass surveillance, therefore (be it government or corporate), rather than protecting ordinary people from “the bad guys,” locks us into a status quo that benefits a tiny but ever more wealthy and powerful elite. At the time, it helps to perpetuate record levels of inequality and beckons global environmental catastrophe.