The recent revelations of NSA surveillance of just about everybody have of course provoked a lot of discussion about privacy–what it is, why it matters, who needs it and who doesn’t. Daniel Solove, writing well before the NSA’s activities came to light, took on the “I’ve Got Nothing to Hide” argument against privacy in this piece. On the other side of the debate, Mike Rogers, chair of the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, proposed the novel theory that your privacy can’t be violated unless you know it’s been violated:
Rogers: I would argue the fact that we haven’t had any complaints come forward with any specificity arguing that their privacy has been violated, clearly indicates, in ten years, clearly indicates that something must be doing right. Somebody must be doing something exactly right.
Vladeck: But who would be complaining?
Rogers: Somebody whose privacy was violated. You can’t have your privacy violated if you don’t know your privacy is violated.
I’m sure that extortionists everywhere would applaud Rep. Rogers’s novel legal theory–if no one’s complained, there can’t possibly be a crime–whole-heartedly. That aside, the fact is that there’s plenty of controversy about what privacy is, why it matters, and what harms result from its violation. The latter question in particular is vexing for privacy advocates. As per Solove’s article, many might argue that if I have nothing to hide, I have no reason to fear the loss of my privacy.
I propose a simple definition of privacy that may help clarify the harm involved in the violation of privacy. To wit: privacy is power. Privacy is a line over which others may not step. Privacy is a protected space within which I think, do, and say what I please. Absent privacy, I’m powerless to prevent the intrusion of the powerful into my life, and that intrusion may take any form that the powerful deem appropriate.
We see this most clearly in police states, whose defining characteristic is the utter absence of privacy. The absence of privacy in such states in effect makes the individual the property of the state. For an extraordinary illustration of this principle in art, I highly recommend the film “The Lives of Others,” which describes the relationship between an experienced and extremely capable East German intelligence officer and the writer he is charged to monitor. I promise that regardless of your political beliefs, you will consider this film to be two hours very well spent. But even in commercial relationships, which are far less coercive than those between authorities and citizens in police states, the absence of privacy tips the balance of power.
I repeat: privacy is power. Without it, the individual has none. Period.
If you’re comfortable with that, then you may indeed have nothing to hide, because anything worth taking has probably already been taken.