The Ethics Of… Privacy

One of the most beautiful things about living in the Information Age is watching governments – comprised mostly of curmudgeonly over 50s – trying to keep up with modern technology. It seems like every time they have a go at regulating tech they manage the stuff it up in the most spectacular fashion possible.

In Australia this week for example, the Australian government is having another crack at monitoring the internet, proposing a ‘security’ law that will force Internet Service Providers to hang on to every user’s metadata for 2 years – data which the cops can go through at will, without a warrant.


For those wondering, here’s a good explanation of why ‘metadata’ isn’t all that different from ‘normal data’.

From a tech point of view, this is pretty idiotic given it is both insanely resource intensive (do you have any idea how much data every internet user in Australia would generate over a 2 year period?), and utterly doomed to failure – any 12 year old who knows what a proxy is will be able to dodge this, let alone anyone who poses an actual security threat.

From a political point of view it’s damn hilarious; in one stroke the government has managed to terrify the vast majority of voters (seriously, would you want anyone knowing about everything you look at online? I’d rather be set on fire) and even managed to turn their own pet think-tank against them. Then the Attorney-General goes on TV to defend the policy and gives us Python-esque levels of comedy:

“Well, um, what people are viewing on the internet when they web surf is not going to be caught, what will be caught is the web address they communicate to.” – George ‘where’s the ‘Any’ key?’ Brandis

From an ethics point of view though, the entire situation is extremely worrying. Now that the vast majority of business, entertainment (and *cough* ‘entertainment’) and communications all take place online, the idea that the police can go through your browsing history (or whatever they prefer to term it) is actually worse than if they started intercepting and reading your mail. It’s a massive breach of privacy by any definition of the word.

Privacy vs. Security

But it’s a worthy sacrifice for our safety, right? With international terrorism all the rage these days, not to mention the terrifying spectre of “general crime” as the government rather lamely put it, is there any level of security that isn’t justified? Are you really, truly saying that you prefer to keep your browsing history private, even if it means people might die?

That sounds like a pretty compelling argument on the surface, and it’s worked pretty well for governments in the past. The degree to which civil rights in the USA in particular have been eroded following September 11 is staggering, with most nations not too far behind. Yet broadly speaking, these are sacrifices we were happy to make.

And even from a purely principled point of view, is there really any civil right more important than freedom from attack? When you put it that way, the benefits of the sacrifice versus costs are pretty overwhelming.

A compelling argument, yes. But is it true? There are three questions to ask here:

  1. How serious are these security threats?

If you’re going to justify sacrifices on the basis of safety, then you need to show the threat is both likely and serious enough to justify that sacrifice. Now there’s no doubt terrorism is serious enough (explosions, bioweapons, extremely broken ideology, etc) but how probable is it? Am I, as an Australian citizen, likely to be exposed to terrorism without these new laws?

Since September 11 there have been precisely zero successful (or even close to successful) terrorist attacks within our borders. None. I am, in fact, vastly more likely to be struck by lightning AND eaten by a shark in the same year than I am to be killed/maimed/injured by a terrorist.

Now we could have a debate about whether some of the other security measures put in place have helped achieve this, but one thing is extremely clear – compulsory internet monitoring did not.

2.  Does/would mandatory, warrant-free internet monitoring actually prevent terrorism?

It’s not enough just to say that breaching privacy will help us stop terrorism (or ‘general crime’) – I could say that mandatory tin foil hats do the same thing, but that wouldn’t make it true (or a good idea for that matter). So is there any proof that this policy will help keep us safe?

Here’s the thing about criminals/terrorists – they tend to not want to be caught. And for them to be nabbed by broad-scale monitoring of metadata alone, they would literally need to be visiting sites such as, openly discussing their plans via email, or posting ‘Gonna kaboom yr hospital!!! LoL!!! #terrorist #itgoesdowntuesday’ to get caught. And that’s even before you factor in such basic technology as a proxy, which effectively makes metadata meaningless.

3.  Are there superior alternatives to broad-scale, warrantless monitoring to securing our safety?

Well whatever we’re already doing seems to be working fine. Or, if you really must monitor data, why not just require a warrant for police to do so? Probable cause, anyone? Basic, fundamental principles of criminal justice?

What do you have to hide?

Given how badly the policy fails these tests, the idea that we should sacrifice our privacy for ‘security’ simply doesn’t fly. But there’s a bigger issue at play here, and this is usually the point where it gets brought out:

Why do you care about privacy if you’ve got nothing to hide?

If you’re not doing anything wrong, then what’s wrong with the government going through your data? And therefore if you do demand privacy, well… you’ve obviously doing something wrong then, aren’t you? Maybe you’ve been stealing some movies? Or writing offensive things? Or maybe there’s a little bit of child porn on your hard drive that you need to hide from the authorities?

The really amazing thing about this line is that it reverses the burden of proof; until you spill the beans and turn out your pockets, you’re automatically guilty. And the more you protest and defend your privacy, the more obvious it is that you are guilty.

And the scary thing is that there is some truth to this: if there is nothing wrong with what you are doing then why hide it? If you are fine with looking at something in private, then why would you be any less OK with it in public?

Sure some of the stuff you enjoy might be a little embarrassing, but isn’t that in itself telling? If you’re ashamed of something then maybe you should be ashamed of it. Maybe it’s shame-worthy. And if not, then isn’t your embarrassment more of a reflection on your self confidence than anything else? Be proud of what you like! Who cares what anyone else thinks? Having your weird, but justifiable fetish dragged out into public might be just the opportunity you need to own it and grow as a person!

Of course, this argument is way too black and white – privacy is a very serious psychological and sociological factor for virtually everyone, and having our inner lives dragged into the light ‘for our own good’ would be crushing. That said, this is merely a practical argument, and practicalities can be managed. In principle at least then, privacy is tough to justify.

Information is power

But there is another, vastly more serious practical problem with eliminating privacy: control over what that information is used for.

In a perfect utopia, sure, privacy could be disposed with and we’d all benefit from it; knowing literally everything about each other would kill off shame pretty fast, as well as make social life one hell of a lot easier to manage.

But we do not live in this fantasy world, and there is plenty to fear about our private information getting into other people’s hands – even if there is nothing actually wrong with what we are doing.

As we discussed during Offensive July, what people find offensive does not have to be related to the facts in any way whatsoever. And if the wrong group finds out you enjoy something they deem offensive or ‘immoral’ (Christ, I hate that word) then it won’t matter if it is ethically justified or not – they will oppose you. And if that group is large enough, powerful enough or reflects the social norm of your culture, you are in serious SERIOUS trouble.

And we’re not even talking about being outed as an atheist in Saudi Arabia here (though that is a particularly bad situation). In any developed nation if you boss finds out you’re involved in something they really, really disapprove of, there is nothing to stop them from firing you for it – provided of course, they don’t actually say that’s the reason.

And imagine being homosexual with a conservative Christian family – a situation all-too-real for thousands. Forget to delete your internet history just once and suddenly you’re disowned; cut off from your primary source of emotional, psychological and material care. Not good.

Privacy may be debatable in principle, but until we iron out every last remaining shred of ignorance and bigotry, it’s just not worth the risk.

Accountability strikes again

But even if we ignore these practical issues, even if we could discard privacy safely and bare our inner selves without the worry of persecution, this proposed monitoring policy still would not fly.

Why? Because it’s all one way.

Information is power. Even if that information is relatively mundane, the more a person knows about another, the better positioned they are to influence that person, for whatever ends they wish.

This would all be fine and dandy if everyone was equally transparent, but it is a key feature of the proposed government surveillance that they are not. Amazingly enough, neither the politicians nor the cops seems to be falling over themselves to show the public their own intimate dirty secrets. Maybe they’re concerned what would be done with those details…

Burning mansion

‘Thankyou for your feedback, the Minister will respond within 5-10 working days.’

As long as one party knows far more about the other, there will be a massive power imbalance. And as we’ve seen far too many times, the more power is concentrated, the more likely that power will be abused. Because why not? There are plenty of reasons to, and nothing to stop it.

Ultimately this issue comes down to the same old topic I bang on about when it comes to power: Accountability. While the public cannot hold those in power accountable for how they use that power, we will continue to have problems. No matter whether you have something to hide, or whether you’re pure as the driven snow, privacy is not something we should give away without a fight.

15 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Privacy

  1. Reblogged this on Crippled Cunt and commented:
    As an Australian this simultaneously disappoints and terrifies me. The various freedoms the internet provides are sacred. It’s this amazing powerful tool that has so much potential.

    It’s this type of paternal maternal ‘I’ll protect you from yourself’ bullshit that makes me question Australian politics. Sacrifice your rights and we’ll make the world a safe place for you to live in.
    I’ll be making my own post about this soon enough…

  2. This is even spoken of in academia, where scholars are talking of the intrusive nature, the predominating ‘lobbying’ of security over privacy.
    I think that it has much to do with how we deal with crime; thing is that, all we do is put ’em into prisons and feed ’em to the extent they beef up with the money we pay as tax.
    It is no wonder that nowadays crimes have been linked to the ‘desire of going to jail’.

    About point number 1.
    I ain’t Australian, but I’m pretty much sure that there was tension in between Islamists of Indonesia and the Australian government, recently, probably within the last few years.
    And, there are also some pseudo ‘Jihadists’ beheading people around in Australia; there’s even a photo of a kid with a decapitated head.
    So, I think that the risk is here; nevertheless as you said, the risk of dying via a terrorist attack is minimal compared to other forms of crime.
    But hey! Terrorists do hit with a high toll when they are on it.
    Albeit at times, I wonder (conspiracy theories (cough cough)) who the real perpetrators are.
    (I’m a Muslim)

    May sound like I’m being a pro-Monitoring, but believe me I ain’t.
    I think that the surveillance thing is another step to prevent ‘miscarriage of Justice’, like coming with something more ‘concrete’ as evidence, if ever they are to nab one of ’em.
    Of course, there’s still the question of interpretation, because ‘metadata’ means only knowing the recipient, and not what has been exchanged as such, right?

    I think, we do care about ‘privacy’ because as you said, most if not all of us, are always going into the ‘cough cough entertainment sites’, downloading music and movies.
    I do have a strong feeling that it would be the ‘entertainment industry’ who would be foremostly using these data, :3.
    Then, being gay myself, I have to admit that even the ‘normal’ porn sites are being marauded with child porn nowadays; not that I have child porn! But there are times, when I’m looking for something to ‘cough cough’ on, I do see ‘illicit/immoral/illegal’ materials passing by.
    So does that make me liable to prosecution?

    I feel that, what I’m really afraid of, is this being considered as a threshold prior to more ‘invasion’ of our ‘private’ lives.
    As soon as people are going to get ‘accustomed’ to being ‘tracked’, I doubt if there’s going to be any opposition when it will come to having the ‘message’ itself.

    ‘Information is power. Even if that information is relatively mundane, the more a person knows about another, the better positioned they are to influence that person, for whatever ends they wish.’
    You are so darn right! I imagine now, they using these information to know what we like, what we want, thereof making more of the ‘products’.
    Phuck! Information is then money! :O

    But this is not only happening in Australia; it feels like that the world, at least the ‘developed’ world is being driven into being a ‘global-police-world’.
    I am from Mauritius, and this is happening even here.

    Lastly, I also feel (I use this word too much, right? I know) that we are not doing anything against it; yes, you are against it, so am I, and so are only very few people.
    But are we the majority? Nah, I don’t think so.
    There is much more noise making (because it’s in vogue) than real action, and it’s depressing.

    Specially when they put up stoop-id people on TV, people who have been swayed by their intensive lobbying, and brandish the whole novelty as being ‘good’.

    It’s more depressing to know that we are few to ‘understand’ it that way, and I feel ashamed that I can’t do much on my own too.

    Two thumbs up for this one, thank you! :).

    • Hi hydeouscreature, thanks for the comment!

      Regarding security, the funny thing is that I would be totally fine with sacrificing my pricacy for security if the threat was really, truely serious – but only if it cuts both ways. Unless the monitoring process is equally transparent, we know exactly what is collected from us individually, what it is used for, and there are strict controls to prevent abuse, then it will be prone to abuse – as demonstrated by the recent news that the NSA passes around nude pics they got off people’s private computers/phones, etc.

      In the meantime though this sort of threat simply does not exist in Australia, so the entire proposal is utterly unneccesary and smacks of a simple power-grab by the government (as you say, nothing like a ‘security threat’ to cement a government’s approval ratings).

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