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Why your online privacy matters, even if you have nothing to hide

Privacy is one of the fundamental rights granted to individuals in a democratic society, so why is it that we continue to give ours away for free?

When it comes to online privacy, it’s easy for us to shrug our shoulders and say,”I have nothing to hide”. That’s the wrong mindset to have.

As Edward Snowden said, “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

I’ve been guilty of the same thinking before, but the thing is, it really doesn’t matter if you have nothing to hide. Having the ability to hide it is the key.

As the prominent children’s book says, “everyone poops”. Pooping is normal. Everyone does it, daily. That doesn’t mean you go to the bathroom at the office, pull down your pants and do the deed with the door open.

No, even though everyone knows what you are doing (and you’re certainly not doing anything illegal) you still close the door. Having the option to close the door while your pooping is why privacy is important.

I can feel your cynicism. Sure, you don’t want your boss to see you poop, but what the hell do you care if he sees your holiday to Bali on Facebook?

Imagine that your boss implemented a doors-open policy at work. He then hires an analyst to watch you and write down every detail of your pooping process. On top of that, he decides to sell your pooping information to toilet companies who will pay top dollar to learn about how people use their products.

This is what happens every time you use the internet. Every search on Google, photo uploaded to Instagram and song you listen to on Spotify is tracked and recorded. This information is then sold to advertisers and other companies so they can target you better through products, services and commercials.

These companies share where you are, who you are talking to, when you are speaking and what you do on the internet. Your online interactions can reveal your political positions, your religious beliefs, your passions and desires, your prejudices and secrets and things about yourself you aren’t even aware of.

NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden in a still image taken from video during an interview by the Guardian in his hotel room in Hong Kong on June 6, 2013 Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras—(The Guardian/Reuters)

NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden leaked highly classified information revealing numerous global surveillance programs. (Image: The Guardian/Reuters)

Doubt how much these companies know about you at your own peril. A recent Cambridge study found that if you ‘like’ over 300 things on Facebook, its algorithm knows you better than your spouse and closest family members.

Take, for example, all the information that can be extracted from just a few hours of my phone usage on Sunday morning. I used Google Maps to get to a cafe, booked tickets for Bohemian Rhapsody, searched what an enoki mushroom is, used WhatsApp to chat to mates about Smash Bros. Ultimate and paid for breakfast using Google Pay.

From that routine internet usage, a staggering amount of data can be collected about my movements throughout the day, my food, movie and video game preferences, my banking details, my economic status and probably plenty of other things I wouldn’t even imagine. This is from just a few hours of data – imagine what can be learned after months or even years of collection and analysis.

The current lack of privacy isn’t just something people on the internet whinge about for the sake of it. The mass surveillance that has become standardised – and both accepted and endorsed by governments – impinges on three fundamental rights set down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

Freedom of association – the right for people to come together and express their ideas openly and safely – is jeopardised by the constant surveillance and monitoring of your online and mobile communications.

Freedom of assembly – the literal freedom to assemble in public – is threatened by the location tracking of your smartphone.

Freedom of expression is an individual’s freedom to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of censorship, reprisal or legal action. When everything you search and write online is under surveillance, it is only natural to self-censor.

When every word or action is being viewed, analysed and collected, it is likely you will be reluctant to search a particular topic or say a particular thing. This isn’t some far off dystopian future – it’s already happening.

In the wake of revelations regarding the NSA’s mass surveillance regime (which a former colonel of the German Stasi secret police called “a dream come true”), a survey found one in six journalists avoided writing about a topic they thought would subject them to extra surveillance.

This chilling effect isn’t happening in some third-world country under a tyrannical dictator, it’s taking place in America, the so-called ‘land of the free’. Similar mass surveillance programs are underway in Australia, which allows 2,500 privileged individuals access to all phone and internet records of its citizenry.

When you say you have “nothing to hide”, what you are really saying is that you think you have nothing to fear from the people in power. You trust ‘them’ (whoever they may be) to do the right thing by you. Unfortunately, history has shown us this is a foolhardy philosophy to maintain.

Each Google search surveilled and Facebook photo scanned erodes our privacy and pushes us away from a free, civil society. If we continue this blind acceptance, surveillance and data collection will only grow until privacy and freedom are relics of our past; Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World minus the SOMA.

A German Lutheran pastor named Martin Niemöller wrote a poem in the wake of World War II about the weakness of German intellectuals and the citizens who ignored the rise of the Nazi party. The poem is about guilt, persecution and responsibility in the face of tyranny. It goes as follows:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

The message is clear, and it’s an important one. Wait to act against injustice at your own danger. The inequity of mass surveillance is proven. Until now, it’s just been easier to accept and ignore it.

Not any longer. Don’t be the one who ignores the problem until it comes knocking on your door, assuming there even is one to knock on. By then it will be too late.

About the author

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

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