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Re-Asserting the Value of Privacy

Commentary, 12 May 2009
Domestic Security
In recent years, technology and terrorism have combined to make mass surveillance both feasible and tolerable in the public mind. But what are the net gains as we trade in our right to privacy for security?

In recent years, technology and terrorism have combined to make mass surveillance both feasible and tolerable in the public mind. But what are the net gains as we trade in our right to privacy for security?

By Anthony McGee, Head of Resilience, RUSI

In successive days the furore, first over ID cards, and then over the Government’s DNA database have brought questions of civil liberties and the changing relationship between the state and the individual to the fore. In particular, the continuance of the ID card scheme in spite of prevailing political winds and almost all informed, independent opinion has been largely exposed as ridiculous.

The individual merits of these schemes have been discussed at length elsewhere. However, the debate surrounding them has highlighted a difficult question for those warning against increasing intrusion into the private lives of individuals. Why does privacy matter?

Understanding Privacy

Privacy means more than just going about our business undisturbed. As brilliantly defined during evidence to the House of Lord’s Constitution Committee on citizens and state surveillance , it means also ‘…the presumption of freedom from having our affairs overlooked by others; it means having access to data that is collected on us by interested parties; it means having control over how data about our private lives is used and by whom; it means the right to establish boundaries between public and private spaces that are lawfully enforced and respected by everyone.’ Yet, even in its subsequent and widely acclaimed report, and despite doing much to inform readers about what privacy was and how it is threatened, the Lords Committee did not articulate why privacy was important. Considering the emphasis on privacy as one of our fundamental human rights; and the onslaught it faces from modern governance, it is surprising and alarming that so little of our contemporary discussion highlights the value privacy adds to our lives.

Privacy is exceptionally important. Springing from the individual right to privacy comes an essential social good. It has been the literal and figurative private space, away from the view of the state, which has historically facilitated creativity and innovation. It has been privacy which has bred repeated and vital social renewal, the challenging of once orthodox ideas which now appal us. In comparison to other civil liberties, such as freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention, the value of privacy is abstract. It is hard to sustain points about social renewal from one generation to another when faced with talk of terrorists and benefit cheats.

Balancing Privacy with Security

Privacy is a vital component of the human condition and most are wary when we feel it being encroached. However, we suppress these instincts when alarmed by security threats, and we struggle with the notion of ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear.’

While some people are persuaded by talk of Orwell and comparisons with Nazi Germany, such associations are incredible to most, and thus unhelpful. In truth, we do not need anything like a fully fledged authoritarian state for privacy to be endangered. As soon as a person cannot be alone in a crowd, or cannot be completely confident that an indiscreet email or text will not be read by a third party, their willingness to break new ground and say the un-sayable is curtailed. As a result of this self-imposed censorship, we become poorer as a society. Of course, this private space can, and will be abused. However, this abuse by criminals and rebels has historically been a small price to pay for the gains we have made as we progress.

Recent governments have probably been no more or less inclined to hegemony than any other in our modern British history . The difference has been the context. Technology and terrorism have combined to make mass surveillance both feasible and tolerable in the public mind. The results have been worrying. Ten thousand Local Authority surveillance operations under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA); Provisions for ‘Information Sharing Orders’ in the Coroners and Justice Bill, re-branded plans for a ‘super database’ to track all telephone and internet communications; the exponential rise in police stop-and-search and the DNA database are just a few examples.

It could be argued that the expensive forays into mass surveillance which have been a feature of recent governments are, at least in part, symptomatic of an era where the pubic purse had bulged and extravagant schemes were the fashion. The new, austere era which is being forced upon us may be a blessing in this respect. However, this alone will not be enough. Aside from practical steps, such as bolstering the powers of the Information Commissioner, we need to foster more public discussion and understanding of the value of privacy. Privacy cannot be complete. There are circumstances when state intrusion is warranted for the sake of security or efficiency. However, at the moment, we cannot asses what, if any, net gains we make when we trade our privacy. When we are asked to trade our privacy, and we are being asked with increasing frequency, not enough of us seem to understand what exactly it is that we are giving away.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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