The above question may seem an odd one, and yet it is becoming more and more relevant, the more we make use of electronic and digital information sharing systems.
The original meaning of the word privacy, if we go back to the late 14th century, was of something secret and mysterious. As such, it was a thing done, or at least known, in solitude, and presumably shared only with a few and with the greatest discretion. Later on, as its meaning developed, it came to signify something set apart, not common, and ultimately to mean a kind of freedom from intrusion. Its etymological origin is from the Latin “privus,” which means individual or one’s own. But as much as words change and develop their meanings over time, they usually also carry with them the DNA signature of the original core of that meaning. Therefore, who does not think of his or her private life not just as personal, that is, set apart and not common, but also as having something of the secret and mysterious about it, as well?
Still, when it comes to revealing private information in our modern world, many people will say, why not? After all, I don’t do anything that’s “that illegal.” Yes, maybe we are all culpable of occasionally driving a few miles over the speed limit, or the worst miscreants (in my opinion) may be those who continue to text or talk on the phone while driving, ignoring their own safety and that of everyone else on the road. But no one has to eavesdrop on anybody in order to apprehend such scofflaws.
The privacy question in the news of late has more to do with whether or not we fear that the government these days has taken its Big Brother role too seriously, or is it merely exercising a legitimate duty of protecting people from those who truly do mean to do us harm? It would appear that, for the moment at least, a majority of the American people side with, and even appreciate, the latter, rather than fear any of the possible or potential excesses of the former. The figures, according to a recent Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll, are proof positive. 56% of the country say they trust the government’s recording of the so-called megadata related to telephone usage, while 45% believe it to be “way beyond acceptable.”
The explanations given as to why some 11% of the country feels all right about what might otherwise be thought of as government intrusion have to do with more than the obvious one of keeping us safe from attack. The whole notion of what is private and what is public is, in fact, under review by the population at large. Facebook already shares more information about us as individuals than ever before with dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of people. Smartphones not only tell us what we want to know about the world around us, but they also report back to companies with untold amounts of data bits related to our tastes, our purchases, our interests, and even our movements. So, in this sense, we have become somewhat inured to being tracked, psychologically, economically, and physically.
But does the tracking of an Amazon.com, for example, which we more or less agree to (that is, if we even pause long enough to read the attached “privacy statement” – though who, really, does that?) exactly equate with what might be called the snooping of the National Security Agency? The government says to us, not to worry, we have your best interest at heart, and we are doing nothing illegal. The law, in fact, allows us to do exactly what we are doing, and if we do decide to look further into your private communications (although we may have to hesitate to call them that anymore), we will do so only if there is legitimate need and with proper FISA court oversight. FISA is, of course, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, as amended after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Additionally, Congress has even been kept informed of all of this, and has, amazingly, agreed. Who knew that the Democrats and Republicans in Congress could get it together to agree on anything since Pres. Obama came into office?
So, the question is, do you count yourself among the majority 56%, who do not have a problem with the government tracking every telephone call made by us for who knows how long now, or are you with the 45%, who feel that there has been something of an overreach on the their part? In whichever camp, or wherever on the wider spectrum, you may find yourself, it seems to me not sufficient to say merely that “I have nothing to hide, so let them trace my phone calls as much as they like.” And I say this as a great admirer of Pres. Obama, even though I do not agree with him on this issue.
The problem, or at least one of them, it seems to me is that governments come and go. I may not mistrust the current administration, but I do not have ultimate faith that no government in the future would ever use the almost incalculable enormity of the recorded data in ways that are not intrusive or even nefarious. And this is not just paranoia. I am old enough to remember the McCarthy years, for example, even if I was still quite young at the time, when people lived in fear of losing their jobs and their careers, and I also remember the enormous overreach of J. Edgar Hoover, who spied and gathered information on untold numbers of Americans, many – most – of whom did nothing wrong, except perhaps to disagree with Mr. Hoover’s political outlook. I am not going so far as to predict a Stalinist state in America anytime soon, thank God, nor am I saying that the NSA or the CIA or the FBI are the equivalent of the old KGB, or the state-sponsored terror of the East German Stasi, the so-called Ministry (or the Committee, in the case of the KGB) for State Security. Note, however, in each case that such organizations are for the security of the state, not necessarily for that of the people.
As much as I am not “up in arms” either literally (surely!) or figuratively about the Snowdon revelations, I would be less than honest if I did not say that they make me uneasy. I get it that the government must do certain things in order to protect people from terrorists, and that there are those out there who mean to do us harm. But I also know that power is intoxicating, and so is information, by the way. In fact, more and more in our interconnected world, information is power. And as much as I think I can say that I love humanity, I also believe it would be utterly naïve and overly trusting to say that no individuals ever misuse power. And what else is a government made up of, except people with power over others?
So, what is privacy worth? An incalculable amount, even when we have nothing to hide. Because who says that the nothing you have to hide today may not someday become the something that an organization, governmental or not, might consider tainted, or questionable, or borderline, or fishy, or suspect, or dubious, or shady, or unsavory, or downright illegal at some point in the future? It would, indeed, not be the first time in the history of human beings that such a transition has taken place. So, why would we think it might never happen again?
Government surely has its legitimate role to play, and I am a great supporter of its legitimate functions. But I also know how flawed human nature is, and how easily power can be corrupted. Let us be vigilant, then, and hold our political leaders to account.
At very least, we ought to know what is being tracked, by whom, and why, and what use will be made of it in the future. This way, if the majority of people are uncomfortable with such actions, they can vote the politicians who first put such systems into place out of office.
Secrecy, like privacy, has its price. And it is up to each of us to decide for him or herself just how affordable that price may be.