Very often when I discuss online privacy, people respond with a variant of “But why would the government or big corpos care about what I do, I’m not interesting” or “Yeah but that doesn’t really affect me and my lifestyle”.
For most people, I don’t think this is used as an argument for why the privacy infringements are okay, but rather why they do not think they should care about it themselves. In essence, it’s the same as the “I don’t do anything bad, so I don’t have anything to hide. Therefore, this doesn’t matter”.
There’s a lot that’s wrong with this argument, and many people have broken it down several times. In many cases it’s showing how we all probably do have something to hide, be it messages we don’t want the general public and our employers to be able to access, or other stuff that would damage our reputations if taken out of context. However, today I’d like to make the another case.
It’s not about you as an individual. It’s about us as a society.
The flaw of democracy
If you’re reading this, chances are you live in a democratic country. It doesn’t have to be a republic, but one where there is a certain degree of democracy, some level of government in the peoples direct control. Personally, I live in Norway, a constitutional monarchy which still is the most democratic country in the world.
Often in democracies, we are taught that democracy is the best form of governance, and rarely spend time critiquing it. This is sad, as the only way to further improve democracy is to find it’s flaws – this can only be done through criticism. However, there are still people who do this. One of them is the historian and author Timothy Snyder, professor at Yale.
In his book On Tyranny he gives 20 pieces of advice on how we can make sure to never repeat the mistakes we did in the 1900s. A point he made which fundamentally changed the way I looked at politics, is that you should never assume that there will be a next election.
We’ve seen this plenty of times throughout history. In 1933, Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor in what at this time was a democratic Germany. As chancellor, he stopped the Nazi’s opponents from building a majority government, resulting in a political stalemate. This led Hindenburg to schedule new elections for early March 1933.
Just before the March elections took place, the Reichstag building was set on fire. The Nazi’s were quick to blame a communist plot and managed to convince Hindenburg to sign the Reichstag Fire Decree the next day, which suspended basic civil rights and allowed detention without trial, while giving the president the rights to take emergency measures as he saw fit to “protect public safety and order”.
The following week until the election was filled with arrests of the Nazi’s political opponents. The German Communist Party’s activities were shut down, and roughly 4000 of it’s members were arrested. When election day came, the Nazi’s got over 40% of the votes. In the span of a week, Germany had fallen into the hands of a mad dictator.
It’s easy to think that this cannot happen again today, but just in the Americas we’ve had at least two attempts of this in the past 5 years. One with Jair Bolsonaro, one with a man who needs no introduction: Donald Trump.
The 2016 elections and Cambridge Analytica.
First of all, I want to preface this by saying that I’m not an American citizen. I do not know the American society personally, and this is all written in the perspective of an outsider.
In 2016 the US elected Donald Trump as president, and the 4 years that followed were filled with chaos. However, the process of which Trump was elected is scary to say the least.
It was scary in part due to the amount of misinformation and targeted attacks on the democratic party by russian actors who quite clearly favoured Donald Trump. But for this article, I want to talk more about the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal.
In the 2010s the personal data of millions of Facebook users were collected without their consent by the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, and was used to manipulate people into supporting the Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. They harvested the data of 87 million users, and mass analyzed it to find behavioral patterns for how to sway the people more towards these candidates.
This brings us back to the point I was making at the introduction. The data collection and psychological profiling of 87 million people wasn’t about them as individuals. It was about manipulating an entire society, an entire people, and an entire country. A country, which just so happens to be one of the biggest economies and the biggest military in the world.
There’s a saying which is attributed to Stalin that goes “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic”. This applies here as well.
The psychological profile of a single citizen isn’t all that interesting. Sure, you get to know a lot about this one person, but unless that person is someone of significant importance (ie. a journalist, activist, CEO, secretary of state), it’s probably not worth too much. But when you get one of a million people, or 87 million people, you’re suddenly able to sway a lot more opinions.
This here is one of the biggest flaws of democracy. Since the people are the ones who govern, the people need to be constantly vigilant. But how can you be vigilant when someone has a complete psychological profile of you, and are able to press just the right buttons for you to not notice that you’re being manipulated?
This is a critique of democracy which has been there ever since it first came to life in Ancient Greece – Plato warned us of how demagogues can manipulate the people to unrightfully take control, and Aristotle about how democracy becomes less stable in times of economic turmoil, further increasing the risk of demagogues taking over. Now imagine what these philosophers would argue if they knew how privately owned companies have these psychological profiles of us.
When Bolsonaro was elected, his crowd didn’t chant “Bolsonaro, Bolsonaro, Bolsonaro!”. Instead, they were celebrating one of the platforms that they utilized most effectively to spread their hate – they were chanting “Facebook, Facebook, Facebook!”
Do not think for even a second, that because you live in a democracy today, you are guaranteed to do so tomorrow. Don’t ever forget that Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and even Adolf Hitler was democratically elected.
The risks of people like these taking over are only increased when information about how we act and think is constantly available for sale to the highest bidder.
To learn more about topics like this, I highly recommend reading Snyder’s books, and listening to his podcast.
I’m not important. Journalists are.
Another huge flaw of this “I’m not important, I don’t have anything to hide”-thinking is that it forgets about other people. I wholeheartedly believe that I am unimportant to this world, and that if I were to die in four minutes, the world wouldn’t change one bit.
It would affect a lot of people close to me, but I’m currently not fulfilling an important role to society. I’d advise people to not go too far into this thought, but instead just acknowledge the principle for this specific purpose.
I’m an 18 year old dude who lives in Norway. I currently study music, and hope to one day be able to make a living off of it. I want to study jazz when I’m done with high school, and most of my work is either to do with this, or my part time job as a librarian.
In some ways, you could say that I have nothing to hide from the government – yes, it would definitely be awkward if every single bureaucrat and politician knew that I’ve listened almost exclusively to Sigrid for the past few weeks even though I’m a jazz musician, or if the general public knew that if when feel lonely I like to put on a pretty feminine hairband and watch Darling in the FranXX or Naruto – but none of this is life changing or threatening.
There is no more “damage” caused to me than it being awkward for a few days before everyone moves on. Me and my friends would probably have a fun little laugh at my cost, and in a few weeks my world would be the same again. The same cannot be said for journalists, human rights activists, and government whistleblowers.
Chelsea Manning – a modern hero
In 2009 Chelsea Manning worked as an intelligence analyst for the US Army in Iraq. In her book README.txt she goes into detail about how she was more and more conflicted with how the information you had about the war in mainland US, and the information out the field was wildly different.
Eventually it was too much. She decided to flash 251,287 diplomatic cables and 482,832 Army Reports which are now known as the Iraqi War logs onto different CDs and SD cards for digital cameras, before leaking the information to WikiLeaks. This information played a central part in how we now understand the Iraqi war, and has allowed us to view invaluable footage such as the Baghdad and Granai airstrikes where the US Army mass slaughted civilians.
In the same year in May, Manning was arrested and held in prison for 7 years. During this time she was denied the health care she needed, had several attempted suicides, and was quite literally put in an iron cage, and degraded and detained the way people do animals. She wasn’t allowed contact with other detainees in 10 months in a row before she had even been court-martialed. I don’t think us normal people are able to comprehend what she went through.
Manning did us a public service, and was instead charged with 22 offenses including “helping the enemy” – all this while the Obama administration said that it wanted to be more open and wouldn’t target whistleblowers the same way earlier adminstrations did. She was eventually released in 2017 when Obama commuted her.
The story of Manning is a story of many things, but perhaps more than anything it is a story which shows us why it’s important that we do our best to protect whistleblowers. The government, which we usually expect to want our best, did everything in their power to make sure the opposite happened here.
Instead of providing us with the transparency we should’ve had all the time and letting us know what was actually going on in Iraq, they decided to torture the person who did. For people like Manning, the lack of privacy led to seven years in a literal hell.
These are the people we have to protect. Imagine for a second that only people like Chelsea Manning put an extra effort into online privacy because they’re the only ones who’s lives depend on it. In practice, this would give goverments a list of everyone who’s doing something that they probably do not like.
You could probably just do a simple regex search of people who you have information on vs all citizens and see who’s left. Afterwards, you just gotta see which of these people work for the government and if they have access to classified documents.
The whole idea that you should only feel a need for privacy if you’re a journalist, activist, or other person of high importance sadly just allows big orporations and governments to control their populations. I don’t think my government does that – I live on Norway, it’s very open here. But I do acknowledge that due to our democracy being flawed, there is a chance no matter big or small, that someone who really shouldn’t have this power suddenly gets it.
If you want to know more about Chelsea and her life, I highly recommend reading her book, “README.txt”. Sadly, she can’t write as openly as she’d like to due to the fear of more government repercussions (she’s escaped hell twice, why go back), but it gives a truly heartfelt story of how it was for her as a trans person, and why she did what she did. She is truly a hero in our time.
There are many reasons why privacy is important, and I’ve only scratched the surface of one specific argument here. I’ve previously mentioned how this mass data collection machine is dehumanising us all, actively spreading hate, and how I believe it’s removing our civil liberties. However, that will have to be another time as it’s 00:37 to me right now.
As a finishing note, I want to once again recommend you all to read On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder. This entire post argues that privacy is important since it preservers civil liberties, democracy, and freedom. There is no single book which I think is more important to read to get a practical guide on how to keep our democracy alive.
The 21st century has sadly started with a trend of less and less democracy, and it’s our job to protect it. I hope that you do your part, and I will make sure to do mine.
There is no other alternative.
This blog post, “It’s not about you.” is licensed with a CC BY-ND 4.0 license. You are free to redistribute this in whole or in part as you want, even for commercial purposes. The license specification in the footer does not apply for this specific post.