Privacy

Jacques Mattheij argues here in favor of privacy, beginning with an account of how the Nazis during World War II used an Amsterdam civil registry in order to track down and slaughter the Jewish people of the city. He concludes with this question:

If you really strongly feel that you have nothing that you consider private ask yourself this: Even if you have done nothing wrong, are you willing to publish your pin code, a high resolution scan of your signature, your passport, your SSN, your passwords, your photographs (naked, preferably), your medical records, the conversations with your attorney, the amount of money you currently have, your criminal record (if you have any), your bank statements, your tax returns for the last 10 years, your license plate and a copy of your driving license, your sexual orientation, your infidelities, the names of the people that you love, the names of the people you despise, the contents of your diary, all the emails you ever wrote and received, your report cards, your entire credit history, all the stuff you ever bought, all the movies you’ve ever watched, all the books you ever read, your religion, your home address and so on for all the world to see?

If you’re willing to do all of that then congratulations, you really have nothing to hide and the word ‘privacy’ means nothing to you. But if you answer so much as ‘no’ to any one of those or to any bit of information that you yourself come up with that you’d rather not share with the world then you too value privacy.

And if you’re not content with living in a world where all of that data is public then you’d better stop repeating that silly mantra ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide then you’ve got nothing to fear’, even if instead of death or identity theft your problems might merely be those of inconvenience or embarrassment when your data gets re-purposed in ways that you could not imagine when you sent it out in the world in a careless manner, and when you helped erode the concept of privacy as a great good that needs to be protected rather than sacrificed on the altar of commerce or of national security (especially from some ill defined bogey man, such as the terrorists).

Of course, no one is willing to reveal all of the information mentioned. The problem is that this conclusion suggests that privacy is good as an end, while his argument merely shows that privacy is good as a means to preventing other evils. The problem with the Amsterdam registry was not that it was a bad thing, but that men were able to use it for bad things. Essentially privacy means that certain information is not available to most people, and it would be strange to assert that ignorance is good in itself. If anything, it is a necessary evil. This is not just a technicality. Considering privacy to be a good in itself has actual harmful consequences such as the European right to be forgotten. Rather than seeing privacy as a great good to be protected, we should see it as a necessary evil which hopefully will someday diminish to the degree that other ways are found to prevent men from using information for evil purposes.

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