Privacy: Why you should care

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“If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”

Another year and the story remains the same.

Another terrorist atrocity followed quickly by much furrowing of brows by those in power who demand greater and greater powers for the state in order to keep us all safe.

This is quickly followed by a push back from various privacy advocates who, amongst many other things, will point out the inconsistency between governments on the one hand stressing the need for companies (like Talk Talk) to use impenetrable encryption and simultaneously demanding that there be no form of communication that the state is incapable of reading.

This is an old dance so I want to ask a slightly different question. Let’s say the state gets its hands on all your data. Who and what are you afraid of?

Interestingly this is something that isn’t much discussed. In the traditional debates the references are usually to “The State” *insert ominous mood music.* Is it really The State per se that we should be worried about though?

Well that depends who you are and what you do online. If you’re engaged in any activity that might be considered “extremist” or radical then yes you probably should be worried. As the net for “extremist” widens this includes many people who might not think of themselves as such including various types of environmentalists.

What if your extra curricular pursuits are not quite so colourful? Well in all honesty you don’t have much to worry about from the state. Most states struggle to find enough resources to properly watch those they deem “extremists” as shown by the fact that in atrocity after atrocity the phrase “known to the authorities” keeps turning up. So apologies to everyone’s ego but they probably don’t have time to listen to you.

The fact that you shouldn’t worry about the State doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be worried. There’s a simple fact that we forget and it’s this: The State *cue ominous mood music again* is made up of real living breathing humans. It’s these people that you should be worried about but not in any official capacity. I’m talking about what happens when those working for the state abuse data for their own personal ends.

So even if your idea of extremism is eating a family sized bag of donuts, you will be at risk if and when you have something that someone with access to your data wants. That or if they decide they just don’t like you.

Here’s why this is not a paranoid fantasy. Two reasons.

1) The number of people in the State that have access to any data collected is probably larger than you think. A lot larger. If you live in the USA it was, at one point anyway, 5 million.

2) People handling collected data for the State have a history of abusing it. Edward Snowden’s colleagues, for example, circulated ordinary people’s naked photos among themselves for amusement.  

So that’s why privacy matters for all of us. Consider getting a VPN and covering your webcam.

One thought on “Privacy: Why you should care

  1. Good point!

    Another thing to consider is also that the state of today could be vastly different from the state of tomorrow. An excellent example of this is how the Netherlands used to register their citizens religious affiliations. Nothing nefarious in itself, until the nazis took over and suddenly had a list of every jew in the country.

    One other big problem I have with state surveillance, which I don’t see discussed very much, is its inherent asymmetry. A group of people knows a lot about me but I don’t know who they are or even what they know. This information asymmetry is a well-known problem in economics.

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