What happened to privacy

Why privacy is important, and why it doesn't matter if you have "nothing to hide"

This article was originally published in English. This translation was kindly created by Benjamin Oppermann (bennsn at gmail dot com).

The governments of Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom and the US are destroying your privacy. Some people don't see this as a problem ...

"I have nothing to hide, so why should I care?"

It's not about that you Have "nothing to hide". Privacy is an individual right that underpins freedom of expression, assembly and association; all of these freedoms are fundamental to a free, democratic society.

The statement of some politicians: "If you have nothing to hide, you also have nothing to fear" steers the whole debate in the wrong direction.

It affects us all. We have to take care of it.

To argue that your right to privacy means nothing to you because you have nothing to hide is no different than to say that freedom of expression means nothing to you because you have nothing to say.

- Edward Snowden

Privacy and freedom

Loss of privacy leads to loss of freedom.

Your freedom of expression is threatened by monitoring your internet use - mindsets and intentions (wrong or right) can be derived from what websites you are visiting, and knowing that you are being monitored can reduce the likelihood of researching a particular topic . You lose the perspective that you would have gained through the research, and as a result your thinking can be pushed in a certain direction. Similarly, the rest of us lose your perspective when the things you write on the internet or share privately with others are monitored and you self-censor as a result. This undermines the further development of ideas.

Your right to association is threatened by surveillance of your internet and telephone communications, and your freedom of assembly is threatened by tracking your whereabouts through your mobile phone. Can we afford to jeopardize the benefits of freedom of association, the social change brought about by activists and civil rights activists, or the right to protest?

These freedoms are being eroded right now. The effects will worsen over time, building on each occasion on which we fail to exercise our freedoms as more and more people feel the depressing effects.


Individual pieces of information that you may not seem worth the effort to hide can be turned into an informative profile connected that could also contain things that you would very much like to keep secret.

In the case of Australian data retention, we have lost our right to privacy and are now sharing a steady stream of the following information:

  • Where we go
  • whom we will contact you and when
  • and what we do on the internet

With just a small fraction of this data, a few off-the-shelf computer programs, and a little free time, readers of ABC News found Will Ockenden's address, place of work, and the address of his parents.

The intrusion into privacy becomes even more spectacular when one considers the data on an entire population, as well as the gigantic budgets of the "Five Eyes" secret services and the constant advancement in the fields of artificial intelligence and the analysis of huge amounts of data.

Your interactions with those around you can reveal your political and religious views, desires, sympathies, and beliefs - even information about yourself that you are not aware of (and this could also be incorrect).

With enough time and data, your behavior could even be predicted.

Personal cushioning effect

When you understand the wealth of information about yourself that mass surveillance is gathering, you begin to change your behavior - you avoid exercising certain freedoms.

You could then think twice about the following things:

  • Contact people or meet (by exercising your freedom of association) who, in your opinion, could become “targets” of government investigations, or which could later be determined as such by algorithms, knowing that digital information is available about your connection to these persons at least can be stored and analyzed for two years,

  • Get together with a group of these people (by exercising your right to freedom of assembly). Would you take part in a march calling for action against climate change if you knew that you would subsequently be forever associated with a group that the Australian government dubbed the “vigilante” movement of “economic saboteurs” ?

  • Participate in any activitythat makes you look bad in the data - even if you know you are innocent. This could mean not writing about certain topics on the internet, avoiding certain websites, or not buying a certain book - which would otherwise count towards exercising your freedom of expression.

Social dampening effects

The overall result of these avoidances in an entire population is a dampening effect on all activities that play a key role in the good functioning of a democracy - including activism, journalism and political dissent.

We all benefit from the progress that takes place when activists, journalists and society as a whole are able to freely engage in political discourse and dissent. Many of the positive changes of the past century were only possible thanks to these freedoms. For example, the 1967 referendum on including the indigenous Australian population in the census, which served as the basis for federal legislation to improve these populations, was only made possible by continued activism throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Unfortunately we are already operating Self-censorship. A 2013 survey of US authors found that following the revelations about the NSA's mass surveillance programs, one in six respondents refrained from writing on a subject that they believed would suspend NSA surveillance, and that another sixth seriously considered this.

Ask yourself the following question: at any point in history, who has suffered most from unjustified surveillance? It is not the privileged, but the defenseless. Surveillance isn't about security, it's about power. It's about control.

- Edward Snowden

Embezzlement and abuse

By creating databases and systems for easy access to such a large amount of sensitive personal information, we are increasing the scope for mass surveillance and thus the target for human rights violations.

The GDR is one of the most extreme examples of a surveillance state in history. The Stasi - its notorious secret service - employed 90,000 spies and had a network of at least 174,000 informants. The Stasi kept meticulous files on hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens, including the “pink lists” of people they believed to be homosexual, and used this information to psychologically press, blackmail and discredit people who had become deviants. But that was before the internet. In a comment on the current system of mass surveillance by the NSA, a former lieutenant colonel of the Stasi said: "This would have made our dream come true."

Leaving aside the risk of systematic government misconduct, we in Australia know that the 2,500 snoops who have unrestricted access to the collected data are plagued by “professional curiosity”, are morally fallible, and are only human at all. Hence, they will make mistakes and are prone to Social engineering, Extortion or bribery.

This is the most dangerous for the people who are most exposed. For example, if you have a disgruntled or violent ex-partner, you could end up in deadly danger with so many details about your life falling into that person's hands.

to take risks

Our “digital lives” provide an exact picture of our real life. Our phone data reveals where we are going and who we are talking to, and our internet use can expose almost anything about us and what is important to us.

Even if we trust the motivations of our current governments, and anyone who is officially permitted to access our data, we are taking an incredible risk. The surveillance systems we are now putting in place can be abused at any time by future governments as well as by foreign intelligence agencies, double agents and opportunistic hackers.

The more data we have, the more destructive its potential.

Gradual dismantling

Every surveillance system that we put in place today degrades our privacy and takes us one step further from a free society.

While you may not have noticed the effects by now, your privacy has already been eroded. If we continue on our current path of expanding our surveillance systems, what was once your private life will gradually crumble into nothing, and the freedoms that we have taken for granted will cease to exist.

As technology continues to advance, we face a choice. Will it continue to bring general benefits to society, or will we allow it to be used for the total permeation of our private lives?

Privacy is rarely completely lost in one fell swoop. It is usually gradually eroded over time, with small pieces dissolving imperceptibly until we finally notice how much has disappeared.

- Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have "Nothing to Hide", Daniel J. Solove

What now?

The governments of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA and other countries are preparing to take a big step in the wrong direction with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The EFF explains why the TPP poses a huge threat to your privacy and other rights.

Original article in English. Translation also available in Italian.