Why Privacy Matters

Why Privacy Matters

“If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to be afraid of”. But we do have something to hide. We all do. How do you behave and look when you wake in the middle of the night and scavenge the fridge or go the the bathroom? Would you do this in the middle of the street? How do you behave when you are home alone for the whole weekend and just want to relax completely? Would you do this in the the office or in school? Or what about being in the arms of your lover perhaps with some exotic fetich? Would you do this in church or at the job interview? What do you complain about at home that you would not want your colleagues to hear about? Would you repeat this at a work meeting?

Of course not and for good reasons. I shall outline a few arguments below to give voice and words to the opponents of surveillance and monitoring.

Judgement of others

Does it matter if our current prime minister had a peculiar sexual fetich or 6 toes on one of her feet if it didn’t affect her performance as a prime minister? Of course not. But what if we knew she had 6 toes? Would we still keep that knowledge separate from our judgement of her professional performance?
For some reason many people don’t like different. We are a little scared of that which is different and which we don’t understand. There may be good evolutionary or social reasons for that but the fact is that it is also a driver for some of our worst behavior. Witch hunts in some form or another.
Yet we want, and need, a society where there is room for everyone because we have learned hard lessons from history about the times when we didn’t have that. Oppression, persecution.
So how do we go about this? Traditionally, we have had the notion of politeness and public behavior to smooth over the differences we want and need room for but can’t face all the time.

Politeness are the rules of the social and privacy makes it possible

I may not like the fact that you have 6 toes and you may not like the fact that I am, say, a vegetarian. Yet we can do business if we don’t flaunt our differences, but focus on common denominators in our interactions. So we are polite and avoid provoking subjects. We have a loose code for public behavior so we don’t insult or provoke each other too much to exist together.
And that is okay as long as we can be ourselves fully in our home when we are not on public display. We can be polite to everyone in the shops and go home and be a bit nasty about that guy who spoke funny or smelled weird. Maybe he does the same about you and me. Maybe there is a good reason for his peculiarity, and had we pointed out how he is strange and we don’t like him in public we would have provoked conflict. Maybe he really would have liked to be a nudist, and we would have liked to wear a government-critical t-shirt, but by we behave “normally” and don’t provoke people around us all the time.
By having our homes to retreat to we can coexist with differences. But this is only possible if we can retreat and relax. Imagine if you always were on display. You never got to be a nudist or massage your 6th toe. Or discuss how the government does everything wrong. Who might be listening? What if your boss, who happened to be pro-government, walked by? What if the government heard it? And what about mental health? Sometimes we need to vent out of proportions to get rid of frustrations. Maybe my boss is reasonable in his requests, but if I am stressed and frustrated with my tasks it might help to call him an idiot loudly. At home. But I would not want him to hear it.
Privacy is a cornerstone of modern coexistence and refinement. Take going to the toilet. We all have to do it – that is absolutely certain. Yet, we prefer to keep that part of our life separated from other spheres of activity. But it was not always like that. In his “The Civilizing Process” Norbert Elias describes the significance of rooms and how they separate different aspects of our lives, both mentally and outwardly. Where once we lived in one room under one roof with the animals and did everything from eating, to sex to toilette to work there we now separate all these activities into different rooms. Similarly, all these activities were once public to all because there was no segregation between these activities but know we clearly distinguish between the “public” room as well as the “private” room and the private room is further divided in modern architecture into bedrooms, dining rooms, bathroom etc. Elias theorizes that this process one of imitating the wealthy, of architecture mimicking the moral separation and hiding of our bodily activities and finally of wealth and showing of.
More rooms means more building material so it is more expensive. An adage from mr Wedgewood, a famous capitalist, “People imitate their betters” applies here as a general increase in wealth through the middle ages translated into more elaborate houses and social comparison between those who acquired more wealth.
A churchly and, in time, victorian moral provided pressure towards the segregation and hiding of bodily activities and a distancing from animals and the animalistic.
If I am being monitored, say naked in the locker rooms in the swimming halls, on the street, through my medical archives, on my communications, all in the name of security, I am effectively being deprived of my privilege to present myself as a civilized person, having distanced and separated myself from bodily functions. I am able to maintain professional distance to people I don’t necessarily like but have to work with by keeping a distance between them and other “rooms” of my life.
An ever-present modern surveillance hinders our ability to separate our activities and roles and they have proven to be important for us to function as different individuals in dense societies.
We vent to each other after dinner and as often on email. I have family living abroad, for instance, and email is an important part of my communication with them. We have different timezones and -schedules, so phone calls are not always an option. But what if emails are spied upon? What if phone calls are being recorded? What if there are security cameras everywhere like in London? Who is listening in or looking at me at all times?
I would not be able to be me completely or say what I would like to say. We behave differently if we know we are being monitored.

Bentham’s Panopticon

This has been described long ago by a fellow called Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher and social theorist. He described the panopticon (taken from wikipedia):
The concept of the design is to allow a single watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behaviour constantly. The name is also a reference to Panoptes from Greek mythology; he was a giant with a hundred eyes and thus was known to be a very effective watchman.
The design consists of a circular structure with an “inspection house” at its centre, from which the manager or staff of the institution are able to watch the inmates, who are stationed around the perimeter. Bentham conceived the basic plan as being equally applicable to hospitals, schools, sanatoriums, daycares, and asylums, but he devoted most of his efforts to developing a design for a Panopticon prison, and it is his prison which is most widely understood by the term.

The point was to rehabilitate criminals by making the integrate “good” behavior at all times so their moderated behavior eventually moderated their criminal state of mind into becoming citizens who fully complied with societies’ norms, externally as well as internally.
Does it sound scary? I hope it does. Does it sound familiar? Well, we had a gruesome example of this in East Germany with Stasi employing close to half the population as agents to spy on neighbors, colleagues and family in order to find behavior deemed not normal, dangerous for the state or society. Economically and technologically East Germany was effectively frozen for 40 years with innovation completely stifled. Most of this was in the name of security and to fight terrorists who wanted to overthrow the nice and stable government.
What do you think it was like to live there? It is not that long ago. There are plenty of interviews around with East Germans describing what it was like and many well-made documentaries. For a more entertaining angle I highly recommend the movie “Des Leben Der Anderen” (The Lives of Others) for an alternative view of this regime. It is one of those movies that has stayed with me year after year.


There is a larges amount of theoretical work on identity forming in postmodernity (that is now) in sociological circles. I have had the fortitude to become acquainted with a few of them and can outline their significance for the topic at hand for you.
Ulrich Beck tells us that we no longer have fixed identities and fixed authorities. Where we could once become a smith and everyone, including ourselves, knew what that meant and who we would be, the world is much more fluent now and we no longer receive an identity with our job or education.
Baumann adds to this by describing how values are not centralized either – there are different codes of conduct and different value sets in modern organizations and as we change jobs, because they are not certain either, we move to different communities and value sets that we must adapt to.
In effect we form our own identities constantly and we even maintain several. On for the job, on for home, and a new one for the new organization you just applied for a job in. Contrast this to the farmer who, 250 years ago, was simply husband in the house, and that was it when he worked, relaxed, ate or spent time with kids because house and work was the same.
Our lives are ones of separation, even with regards to our very selves, and a panoptic society would jeopardize our ability to separate and adapt identities between playtime and work time, different organizations, and even different images of ourselves as we wish to present ourselves on different fronts.


Freedom of speech cannot coexist with a feeling of living in a panopticon. Because a panopticon moderates our behavior we can no longer be said to be free, as in doing what we would do without influence from without. How can I vent about the government if I fear they are listening? There may not even be a certain consequence. Just knowing that what I said has been recorded makes me think a second time before speaking.
In Denmark, for instance, it is not unheard of with laws that go into effect with backwards-working power. See here and here and here and here and here for a few examples. This means that there is an uncertainty about speaking and acting. But if nothing is recorded that would be less of a problem. Conversely, knowing that everything is recorded means that even if I do what I can to adhere to the law today, I risk being a criminal in the future, despite trying to be law-abiding now, and since everything is recorded that means I must think about what I do and say right know for fear of future prosecution. This is symptomatic of a police state.


A point to bear in mind is that the proponents of increased surveillance rarely take kindly to their own exposure. For instance, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel had been noticeably quiet about defending the citizen’s right to privacy from NSA surveillance until reports emerged from Edward Snowden that she herself was being monitored. Then she got busy. In Denmark it was very interesting to see the government’s ministers advocate a law limiting public insight into the memos and notes exchanged between the ministers and their departments. The law is now in effect. You would think that the very same government who allows  and even advocates logging of our private communications (see here and here and here) would be open to public access to non-private communications between people at work and whose salaries are paid for by the very same public. There are arguments for this law, see here for instance, where a lot of good intentions are presented as arguments to prevent misuse of the law, while the comments sections reveal a somewhat more cynical (perhaps from experience) view among the commenters.

This does present the question “Are the citizens for the state or is the state for the citizens?” rather pointedly. Since we pay for it and listen (particularly here in social democratic Denmark) to reassurances again and again that the government and welfare state is here to protect us all and do the best for everyone the actual actions of the government makes it all sound rather hollow.

When someone says “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to be afraid of” it is tempting to say, “okay, lets start by monitoring you”. In our case that someone said “no, that won’t do, we just want to monitor you and now it is law”.


A lot of business relies on secure communication to discuss business plans regarding unpatented technologies under development or intellectual property. As long as there is no surveillance, it up to the business parties to find out how to secure their communication. But if governmet listens in, and stores, information between business parties, it becomes critical whether or not the government can store this information securely.
There are many cases of data breaches and as we rely on government to secure us from property theft so we can conduct business and be protected under the law, so modern business relies on data privacy in order to function properly.
Unfortunately, there are many cases where it is clear that big data collections can fall victim to attack or folly and public authorities have not proven better at IT technology. See here and here and here and here and here.
A major difference between private accidents and public ones is that I choose freely whether or not I give data to a company when I decide if I want to sign up or not for a service. I cannot choose or opt out of government surveillance and so my data is being taken from me involuntarily and stored incompetently.

“But what about criminals and terrorists?”

I think it may be appropriate to remind ourselves what the good Benjamin Franklin once put eloquently (from wikiquote):

“He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither liberty nor security.”

With freedom comes risk. The risk of the free initiative and sometimes that is abused. That is what we have police for. And sometimes we need to give up a little freedom to get a measure of safety. But we should be very very careful about it and be very very critical about the motives of the demagogues and politicians who advocate it.
It is also useful to think of in terms of tradeoffs. Are you willing to trade a free life with a very small risk of some elements behaving badly for a guaranteed opposed life where some will behave badly anyway? Cause and effect can be difficult to see when there are so many people claiming this or that in the short term, but does not make this less real.
Bear in mind, that there is no good evidence for and much debate about whether the TSA is effective, for instance.
And we should be very aware of the shortsightedness of scare tactics in politics. Introduction of control in the name of fear has always ended up being used to harness the population as a whole.
No freedom is safe, but it is also a prison. Yearning for prison is a sad approach for life and yearning to enforce prison for everyone is even sadder. With freedom comes not only risk but also adventure, art, a multitude of writings, diversity and prosperity. For without entrepreneurial freedom, freedom to think and discuss freely, freedom to be different there can be no innovation. There will also be a level of inequality because if everyone is different, no one is the same. That means that someone will have more of something than someone else. This creates opportunities and dynamics, but also bad luck and frustrations. Such is life and such should life be if we don’t want to take away the colors of experience.

What world do you want to live in?

In many ways this is similar to the question of how much freedom to give children. Should they be allowed to climb trees and run around when there is a risk they might fall and hurt their knees? Or should they be safe and sound in the living room, just looking at the trees through the windows?
What kind of childhood would you want? I would want to climb the trees and run on the grass. And I want my society to be the same way. The opposite is a stale, stagnant prison of a society. A modern panopticon.

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