Privacy allows the intellectual and moral development of ourselves and our society. Without it, we are at best trapped in a system of self-censorship, and at worst building a platform for an authoritarian future.


Privacy is a wonderful and complex thing. To my mind, it should operate on a sliding scale under the individual’s control: total privacy for those who want to research information for themselves or communicate in confidence with others, through partial privacy for those willing to exchange personal data for convenient services, down to zero privacy for those who want to strut their stuff in public.

The partial or total surrender of privacy is familiar to us through our transactions with the likes of Google and our use of platforms such as Twitter. That’s fine, as long as the individual chooses to surrender their personal data. But I’d like to dwell for a moment on the concept of total privacy, and why it should be an option even in the online age.

Social change

Privacy means different things in different cultures, and the western understanding of privacy is largely a function of the industrial age. When we all lived in villages and small towns, people knew a lot more about their neighbors than they do now. It was only when the railways developed and we found ourselves clustering in cities that we began to lead more dislocated, anonymous lives.


In both the pre-industrial and industrial ages, we retained the ability to have private conversations. And, as anonymity grew, it also became easier to learn new information without others being in on those conversations – think of the ability to get a book from a bookseller or a tract from a pamphleteer without knowing that person or (spies withstanding) having it recorded or widely known that you gained this knowledge. Indeed, freedom from prying eyes continues to be a driver for many people to move from the small town to the big city.

Now we live in a post-industrial age where the advent of internet connectivity has allowed us to do new things: to form nebulous communities based on interests rather than geography; to share knowledge more easily than ever before; and to become much more mobile, with many jobs just as easily executed from home or another country as they were from the traditional, centralized office.

The question is, does the shift into this new age necessarily mean forgoing the freedom of the last? I hope not, because I believe the option of anonymity gave us great intellectual freedom.

Free speech

There are, as I see it, two kinds of freedom of speech: freedom to say what you want to say publicly in public; and freedom to say what you want to say privately in private. The former is crucial because it allows us to freely inform others, while the latter is crucial because it allows us to freely inform ourselves.

Conversation copy

There is immeasurable value in the private conversation between friends or trusted colleagues. It is through such confidential exchanges that we get to experiment with new ideas. These ideas may be wrong, offensive or even – if put into practice – illegal, and it is through the mechanism of private conversation that we can tell each other that one idea makes sense, and that another is best left unfulfilled.

Similarly, private web browsing – a conversation with an index, if you will – can greatly expand our horizons. Fortunately, the web brings with it a crude peer-review system: in general, stupid suggestions get shot down while good ideas gain traction. It’s a glorious, unruly intellectual laboratory.

However, that all changes when we know we are potentially being watched by forces more powerful than ourselves. And, unfortunately, we have allowed this to become the case, by increasingly relying on the internet as an interface between ourselves and the world.

Chilling effect

Those of us who have advanced beyond adolescence generally put checks on what we say in public. We present a certain face that may be straightlaced or offensive, but we usually cut out or play down the thoughts and comments that would be inconsistent with the way we want others to see us.

This has always been the case, and rightly so – there is nothing wrong with having divergent public-facing and private personas, for the reasons I have outlined above. Yes, there is a risk of hypocrisy, but there is also the opportunity for personal development that may, once refined, help others develop as well.

Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon

It is not necessary to be watching someone in order to change their behavior. All that is needed, as the philosopher Jeremy Bentham posited with his Panopticon prison design, is for that person to reasonably suspect they are being watched. The result is the most powerful kind of censorship: self-censorship. If you can get someone to avoid stepping out of line, even in private where it affects no-one else, then you control that person.

I’m not arguing that NSA surveillance was deliberately intended to exercise this kind of mental control. The agency almost certainly had no intention of letting the public know about its surveillance activities, because information is power in its own right and the public is now armed with knowledge it can use to fight back. However, Edward Snowden’s leaks have nonetheless put us into a position where we are rightfully paranoid, and as a result we now face a decision about how to proceed – in our own heads, as well as through the courts and on the streets.

The internet age has brought our personal conversations and our very thoughts online. So, should we now accept that these things must be limited to what those with power find acceptable? I would argue not.

Tools for tyrants

As the splendidly-named security expert Moxie Marlinspike has eloquently argued, society and its laws do not develop without a degree of experimentation. He brings up the fact that sodomy used to be illegal in Minnesota, as was marijuana use until very recently in Colorado and Washington:

“Imagine if there were an alternate dystopian reality where law enforcement was 100% effective, such that any potential law offenders knew they would be immediately identified, apprehended, and jailed. If perfect law enforcement had been a reality in MN, CO, and WA since their founding in the 1850s, it seems quite unlikely that these recent changes would have ever come to pass. How could people have decided that marijuana should be legal, if nobody had ever used it? How could states decide that same sex marriage should be permitted, if nobody had ever seen or participated in a same sex relationship?

“The cornerstone of liberal democracy is the notion that free speech allows us to create a marketplace of ideas, from which we can use the political process to collectively choose the society we want.”


It is also worth remembering that, even if our current administrations and legal frameworks are well-intentioned, totalitarian states have a nasty habit of coming into being. Such forces would delight in pervasive surveillance capabilities and the acquiescent mindsets they encourage. History does repeat itself, however secure we may feel today, and we should always refrain from building tools for tyrants.

So, for the sake of ourselves and our children, we need to retain the option of true privacy for those who want and need it. It’s more fundamental to our lives than we sometimes realize, and the implications of abandoning it are far more dangerous than any terrorist attack.

  1. davidofirvine Wednesday, July 10, 2013

    We are really hoping to change that, www,maidsafe.net -> novinet and see the code. It’s a huge job but well worth the effort for sure.

  2. davidofirvine Wednesday, July 10, 2013

    We are trying to change that. I have met many of the arguments against privacy you mention and find it amazing. I also see things called secure data and storage etc. where the stuff resides on servers owned by people or companies. I find it all amazing that we put up with it all, then I started to design and develop a system that would have at it’s heart privacy, security and freedom and 6 years later I realise just how hard it was to get this all fixed.

    To me the only way we can progress as a race is to be able to communicate freely and without internvetion and all our data should be only acessable in any form by us. This is now real and happening, we are releasing all code as we speak and now is the time to forget intervention of any kind on the general population. Early days but this is the year, I hope, it all changes for the better.

    1. Best of Luck…yes privacy is a issue that a common net user thinks of whenever he logs into any website…providing that will help a lot :D

  3. “It is also worth remembering that, even if our current administrations and legal frameworks are well-intentioned”

    Well intentioned ? Really?
    Lets take Obama as an example, everything else he does ,besides giving more power to security agencies , shows that he’s a smart guy and that implies that he knows very well how wrong all this is. Why is he doing it then? Mostly it’s about doing everything to avoid terror attacks under his watch to not give the other side political ammo. He’s endangering the future of his country for his personal gains.That’s pretty much treason and he’s just a coward (btw i am not a crazy republican, i’m a center-left outsider so i just have to say it as it is).

    Not sure why you left out propaganda , losing free will and becoming just farm animals is a rather important aspect of why we can’t allow anyone to have too much data and to use it as they wish.

    Someone also has to point out that this desire to dominate the US has is rather outdated, someone needs to grow up. Doesn’t matter how you dominate, by land grabs, economy or data ,it’s all greed inspired.

    1. Yeah, I was being a bit generous on that point (thought I doubt many politicians really enter the game in order to win dominion over all who tremble before them). As regards what I left out – well, I just wanted to keep it relatively concise.

      1. Most politicians enter for power and money and maybe fame and they do all they can to keep that .In the US that mostly means selling out to corporations ,but in this case it’s not about that.(the dominating part was about the US, not individual politicians and some of the leaked slides do state that goal).

        It’s also rather problematic that EU nations seem to be behaving like vassals, Nobody has the courage to shelter the leaker? If we don’t even try to protect our heroes what the hell are we? Used to think that at least a significant part of EU politicians are honest ,not anymore.

  4. Privacy is part of “our being” and not “our own”, thus giving it is to lose a part of ourselves, and pretend to let us take it away without a part of our own humanity, and I agree, that’s worse than any terrorist attack.

  5. I feel that we should have the right not to put our foot in our mouth. Looking at the Zimmerman trial we see the prosecutor using the tape Zimmerman did without a lawyer against his case. In this country we have the right not to incriminate ourselves. We can plead the fifth. In many other tyrannical countries you have no rights and can be beaten to confess out of pain to what you may not have done.

  6. Two comments: “In both the pre-industrial and industrial ages, we retained the ability to have private conversations.”

    True for cities. For people living in rural areas where everyone knew everyone else, privacy far less assumed.

    Also … I still don’t get why it’s so awful that the NSF spies on us, but it’s okay when it’s a corporation (Google natch, but lots of others). At least the government has legal restrictions on what it can and can’t do. Corporations can scrub you skinless if they want.

    1. I agree with the last comment. For most of human existence we’ve lived in an agrarian culture. There was no privacy, everyone knew want you owned, they could count your goats. Yet there was safety in your tribe. People looked out after one another. These ideas of privacy are relatively recent. We are hardly lost without privacy. Some might venture we are returning to our roots.

    2. Vanitas Nomen Monday, July 15, 2013

      What does “scrub you skinless” even mean? Sounds like you could only use an abstraction when creating this fiction.
      I’ve NEVER heard of ANYONE being bodily harmed by Google.
      However the Government will parole a rapist to put you in a cage for a leaf – and this is who you champion?
      What legal restrictions does the Government have? They make the restrictions, and you best believe they are always in their interest. Ever heard of the War Powers Resolution? So what has stopped presidents from starting conflicts despite this “legal restriction”? Nothing.
      You want to avoid Google – no problem. You can’t avoid the state however.

  7. Totalitarianism? Two words: North Korea.

    But scarier still is something much closer to home. Two syllables: Facebook.

    I have managed to steer clear of both to date. I’m researching how to remain that way by reading Frank M. Ahearn’s “How to Disappear,” among other sources. It’s amazing the lengths we must go to these days just to pee with the bathroom door closed, if you’ll pardon the metaphor.

    (sound of toilet flushing)

    1. I’m NOT a facebooker either..Other than the page I co-moderate for work…So many folks willingly give UP their privacy; when they facebook. From college entrance requirements to job qualifications…facebook is being used for MANY reasons these days. 2 thumbs UP on your write…

  8. Very well written. I admit to being rather preoccupied with the topic of privacy myself. I very recently included the Panopticon in a piece I wrote in early May about the vast construction of new highway cameras across the country. At the risk of being spammy, (http://adamuzialko.com/2013/05/08/electric-eyes-exercise-eminent-domain/) I’ve left the link.

    Great work, David.

    – Adam

  9. The government has access to metadata; this does not mean the government is reading your emails or listening to your phone conversations. Over 300 million people live in the US, each having hundreds, thousands of communications per month. It is ludicrous to think that any particular individual is in danger of government getting, or even wanting, access to the content of their communications. What the government looks for within the metadata is any pattern suggestive of terrorist activity. In addition, the pertinent law specifically stipulates that the government avoid any such activity involving US citizens. When suspicious patterns are identified, the government must apply to a court for a warrant to proceed any further. In other words, the court determines whether probable cause exists for further investigation. Much has been made of the secrecy of this court, yet many ordinary court proceedings are also sealed, i.e., secret, and no outcry has arisen about them.

    True, all of this is subject to abuse. The government could decide to read emails based on whether or not people agreed with its policies. The government could be evil. History is full of examples of this, long before any of this tech capability. It can be done without any recourse to this data. Government could decide to arrest you tomorrow, emails or no emails. Access to communications metadata could allow them to be more precise, I suppose, but it will not make it easier to foist a dictatorship on unwilling people. I worry more about the willingness of certain parts of our society to demand government control than I do about metadata.

    If you want something to worry about, try the fact that corporate America has all of this data to begin with, and is now actively using it to determine your access to information via algorithms to determine your existing preferences; no vetting or approval process in place, or envisioned for the foreseeable future. Worry about the fact that you are unlikely to see any stories that disagree with what you already believe on this very topic via your favorite search engine or news outlet. Or even any that accurately describe what is actually being collected by the government, since we seem to prefer picking sides to analyzing actual information.

    1. “It is ludicrous to think that any particular individual is in danger of government getting, or even wanting, access to the content of their communications”.

      I submit that it is not ludicrous; that the government can pull down or assemble a thick dossier of information about any individual (over about 15 yrs old) in the country in a matter of minutes. The infrastructure and technology is in place. Most of the public lives a mundane existence; yes. I agree that there would be no point to the government monitoring all communications. They don’t have to when they can just write or adjust computer algorithms to go back and sift through mountains of stored digital data.

      I don’t buy the idea that only meta-data is being stored. From some of the information gathered about DARPA’s Total Information Awareness (TIA) program about 10 years ago, it is realistic to assume that the NSA’s capability extends much farther than that. We are talking about the same National Security Agency/ Central Security Service created back in 1952? The NSA is the world’s largest employer of mathematicians and has the world’s largest and fastest supercomputers. These smart people should certainly be able to develop dragnets able to predict which communications content to store and which to dismiss. They make machines / not humans, listen or look for keywords in conversations or correspondence, in real time.

      One of my pet peeve’s, which is growing popular in the modern vernacular, is the term “corporate America’. It is a vague expression with negative connotations. In this instance I prefer the term info-merchants, those parasitic (sometimes small) companies that milk your data to create some type of commodity. I have ranted long enough and so will leave behind a few links pertinent to the privacy topic. Some of these links are old and I have not visited them lately.

      Privacy International once maintained a good list of information brokers.
      DARPA / TIA / IOA / Poindexter
      EFF : Total/Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA): Is It Truly Dead?
      This link gets clipped and directed to the current blog. Originally the article placed the USA right up there with England, Singapore, Russia and China – as being top privacy violators.

      1. The government can, indeed “pull down or assemble a thick dossier of information” on any individual. That it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s probable for any given individual. It’s rather like the lottery. The state can, at any moment, give millions to any individual based on numerical metadata (lottery tickets).

        Look, I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m saying there’s little reason for any particular, random person to worry about it. If the government goes rogue, we’re screwed all the same. Stalin, Hitler, Mao – none of these guys had this capability, and if they did, there’s a legitimate question of whether the sheer quantity of it would render it much less useful than you would think. Not long ago, information overload was brought up as a possible explanation for intelligence failures relating to 9/11.

        In any case, if things are indeed as dire as you say, it’s too late, anyway.

  10. I think what Edward Snowden did was a service to all Americans. He’s not a traitor in my opinion. He has confirmed that our government is very corrupt and cannot be trusted. We all know who the buck stops with on that topic.


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