March 16, 2014

Privacy is a Luxury Item

I am always a bit disappointed when I hear individuals dismiss the need for privacy or security. “I have nothing to hide,” they may say, and consider those fighting for privacy as those who have untoward secrets to protect. For those people, I’d like to take a brief walk through our history as a species.

Whether you are evolutionist or creationist, one thing that we can agree on is that our origins started us off as a collective. It is not until much later on, and much further in technological advancement, that the idea of being an individual really meant anything of value. By yourself, what could you accomplish? Could you procreate? Could you really even manage to do anything more than subsist?

Because humankind required interaction and cooperation, most things were done to the knowledge of the collective. Perhaps religion, taken in the academic sense which I define as “a codified set of rituals for spirituality,” is the earliest example of authority preserved by the protection of information. So we see privacy not being something for all, but something rare and valuable for few.

The wonderful thing about our societal development is that we’ve done a pretty good job extending the possibility of privacy to a much larger segment of the population—so far, in fact, that we have undervalued it from its original luxury status to a commodity status, and further. We consider privacy, instead, to be a right: our money belongs to us, our door can be locked, our ideas should be credited. That we can even think of this as such is a testament to human progress. In the end, though, we risk squandering our riches by treating privacy with such casualness.

There was a time when paper was painfully expensive. It was an arduous and manual process to create, so very few people had the opportunity to touch paper, let alone own it. Soon, mechanical processes made paper more abundant and applicable for a variety of uses. They were bound together in things called books, which themselves were quite special and rare. Permit me a small tangent to remind you that at the time the printing press became a thing it was still relatively uncommon anywhere in the world to use paper for toilet purposes except in China. Today we not only use it to wipe our butts but for just about any other careless activity we can imagine.

Privacy is not like paper. Pretending that there is an overabundance of privacy so great that we can toss it at will results not in large landfills of waste but, frighteningly, an amassing of privilege. Those who choose to hold and manipulate privacy gain heightened authority and/or control when compared to their transparent counterparts. Think about this: only one who works in privacy can dictate who can have privacy. This is why we don’t share our intimate details with blabbermouths; they don’t work in privacy, and thus, are not a place to invest in secrets. When you give up your right to be private, or fail to support the right for others to be private, the end result is that the right to privatize (or publicize) your information is deferred to someone who does exercise privacy, and this is where society has found so many of its darker spots.

You don’t have to be a bad person to have a secret. You don’t have to be hiding something to want privacy. Like income, you don’t have to use privacy to justify protecting it. And in our imperfect world, it is very important to remember that any privacy you choose not to protect adds value to privacy elsewhere.

Treat privacy as the luxury it is, and be careful with it.