Reading through these wealthy, powerful people’s glib statements on privacy, one begins to suspect that what they’re really talking about is other people’s privacy, not their own. If you exist within a personal Green Zone of private jets, fenced off hideaways, and firewalls maintained by the country’s best law firms and PR agencies, it’s hardly a surprise that you’d eventually come to see privacy more as a privilege than a right. And if your company happens to make its money by mining personal data, well, that’s all the more reason to convince yourself that other people’s privacy may not be so important.
There’s a deeper danger here. The continuing denigration of privacy may begin to warp our understanding of what “privacy” really means. As Bruce Schneier has written, privacy is not just a screen we hide behind when we do something naughty or embarrassing; privacy is “intrinsic to the concept of liberty”:
For if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that – either now or in the uncertain future – patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.
Privacy is not only essential to life and liberty; it’s essential to the pursuit of happiness, in the broadest and deepest sense of that phrase. It’s essential, as Schneier implies, to the development of individuality, of unique personality. We human beings are not just social creatures; we’re also private creatures. What we don’t share is as important as what we do share. The way that we choose to define the boundary between our public self and our private self will vary greatly from person to person, which is exactly why it’s so important to be ever vigilant in defending everyone’s ability and power to set that boundary as he or she sees fit.
Take a look!