What’s The Big Deal About Privacy?

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What's The Big Deal About Privacy?

The right to privacy has been a hot topic in our country as well as on our blog. Most people have at least some level of uneasiness or frustrations when it comes to the issue and, unlike several other political issues, everyone is directly affected.

However, on August 16th, Alva Noë at NPR posted an article titled, “What’s The Big Deal About Privacy?” in which he argues that not only is privacy unimportant, it isn’t even really something that we want.

Noë shows his bias from the very opening of the article, writing:

Privacy is the state of being unobserved.

Looking back at history and prehistory, privacy is the rarest luxury. It requires walls or seclusion. It is not our natural condition.

In recent times people have taken privacy for granted, the same way we take other modern conveniences for granted. There’s nothing natural about privacy, just as there is nothing inalienable about cheap .

Privacy may be going the way of the dodo, or rather, the way of the long playing record: a rarity enjoyed by the few.

Already the problem in Noë’s argument is that privacy is not the state of being unobserved — if it were, privacy would be meaningless for spouses, parents, infants, and pet owners. If privacy were the “state of being unobserved,” then perhaps there wouldn’t be such a big deal surrounding privacy. However, Noë stopped at the first definition of privacy and failed to look any further. He failed to even notice privacy, as it is defined in “the right to privacy.” According to Dictionary.com:

pri·va·cy noun, plural pri·va·cies.
1. the state of being private; retirement or seclusion.
2. the state of being free from intrusion or disturbance in one’s private life or affairs: the right to privacy.
3. secrecy.

He stopped at seclusion and said, No one has that, so privacy must not matter. He failed to traverse to “the state of being free from intrusion or disturbance into one’s private life or affairs: the right to privacy,” which is the real thing in question with all of this privacy discussion. Privacy, by this definition of being free from intrusion into one’s private life, is our natural condition.

You are having thoughts right now. Without your communication of those thoughts, they will forever be private. They will be secret. Nothing I can do will relinquish those expressions from you short of your compliance to my request. This is the sense in which privacy is your natural condition. The essential self, the one of Descartes “I think therefore I am,” is inherently private.  That’s the whole reason solipsism (I can only be sure that my mind exists) can be a theory: Your thoughts are so naturally private that I may even doubt they exist at all.

Furthermore, privacy is choosing what people see of or know about the things you own. As a new homeowner, there are few people who have seen the inside of my house. As the owner of this place, I can grant the right to see the interior to whomever I would like. This is my right to privacy. I can keep the interior of my house all to myself, I could only show my family, or I could post pictures of it on the Internet for the world to see. Even if I show the world, I have a right to privacy. My right to choose which people know the things I own was exercised as I relinquished the information to everyone.

As the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution puts it:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

This is privacy. It is choosing how much of your things other people know about.

However, Noë continues:

The striking thing about privacy, it seems to me, is it may not even be something that people want. Actions speak louder than words. And far from acting to preserve or protect our privacy — far from working to find and cultivate conditions in which we are unobserved — we seem, as a culture, to be doing the very opposite, to be reverting to our natural state of openness.

The striking thing about Noë is that he can say things like “privacy may not even be something that people want” and then he wears clothes, one of the simplest ways we humans implement privacy. Most of us, presumably Alva Noë included, think that our naked bodies are something private. As children we are taught that we have “private parts” as adults we say things like, Your body is your own to give. Certainly our understanding of sex and rape reveals our understanding of the privacy of the human body. Our rape rulings are evidence that we believe that you have a right to decide who knows your body, you have a right to privacy.

In this article, Noë is twisting the word privacy to solely mean seclusion, something that we as a community greatly dislike, and then playing on that straw argument to make you think that privacy is unimportant. However, privacy is amazingly important, and, just by the act of wearing clothes, you are saying that privacy means something to you. You want your private parts private.

Other people want many more things private. Some people want their bank account balances private. Some people want their home address kept private. Some people want their diagnosis kept private. In a YouTube piece titled “What Are You Hiding From The NSA?,” Dan Dicks of Press For Truth asks people questions that get increasingly more personal: “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” “Who was the last person you called on the phone?” “What did you search on Google last night?” “What’s your mother’s maiden name?” “What’s your bank account number?” Somewhere along the way, the questions got too personal for these people. They wanted to keep the information private, at least from this You Tube interviewer.

As the Corbett Report said about the video:

Somewhere in the line of questioning, the person answering would inevitably claim that the question was too personal and would decline to answer. They had reached the limit of what they were willing to reveal about themselves to a total stranger.

So why are people (sometimes the very same people who argue that they have nothing to hide) reluctant to give away all of their personal information to a random person on the street? Obviously because they do not know that person or his intentions. He could be a criminal attempting to steal the information so he can access their bank account or steal their identity. Even if he wasn’t a criminal, who’s to say where the information would end up, and whether it may eventually end up in the hands of some nefarious criminal?

Privacy is important and, of course, it is something that we want. Privacy is simply choosing what you tell or give to whom.

However, Noë continues in his straw argument:

I have always found the idea of the diary somewhat puzzling. It is meant to be the private record of one’s thoughts and feelings. Writing just for you. But that’s the thing. There’s no such thing as writing just for you. Writing, of its very nature, is, if not public, then at least sharable. Behind the impulse to keep a diary, there lies the impulse to share, to communicate, to make public.

So to be a diarist is already to flirt with social media.

These days we keep our diaries in public. We’ve replaced “Dear Diary” with “hey, fb friends!” We’re less Anne Frank than we are PT Barnum, presenting our lives online and in real-time. Each of us runs a media empire devoted to our own exhibition. Millions of us, at minimum, are the authors of fan magazines devoted to ourselves.

Noë is again confused. He talks about diaries as being capable of being shared as though the possibility of sharing excludes the ability or right to keep it private. He even uses “to make public” as though it were a synonym of “to share” and “to communicate.” However, I tell my close friends and family many things I don’t want to tell a total stranger. My husband knows details of my life and heart which are still private, even though I have shared them with him. Furthermore, my thoughts are capable of being shared and I am sharing many of them now. However, I have infinitely more thoughts which I don’t share. Just because many of them are in words which are shareable doesn’t mean that behind my impulse to think them I have an impulse to share them. Some thoughts are just thoughts. Some diaries are just words.

Most keepers of truly secret diaries would be horrified for the privacy of those pages to be violated. The words on those pages are for the benefit of a future you, not for the whole world. Furthermore, just because sometimes people choose, in their right to privacy, to make things public doesn’t mean that their right to privacy doesn’t exist. I am posting this response in a public place, but that doesn’t mean that I want to make my whole life public. Each of us has sensitive information which is better kept private than given to the wrong hands.

But Noë’s attack on privacy is really not an attack on privacy at all. He has fabricated this straw man of privacy, seclusion, and then proceeds to argue that it’s impossible to be secluded. Regardless of if he’s right in that claim, it has nothing to do with true privacy. As he continues, this confusion of his just becomes clearer:

And that powerful, vain impulse to broadcast ourselves is just the tip of the iceberg. We use phones that literally map our every move. Our credit cards leave a permanent and transmittable record of our every purchase. And you can’t walk down the street, or drive anywhere, without being photographically recorded.

As individuals, and as members of our cultural group, it seems, we tear down the walls and open ourselves up to near constant observation.

It’s as though he is saying that it’s our choice to sacrifice our privacy. You use a phone. You use a credit card. You walk on the street. However, none of these actions alone is choosing to make your information public knowledge. Just because our phones can map our every move doesn’t mean that our information is public knowledge. Just because our credit cards track our purchases doesn’t mean that information is public knowledge. Furthermore, both of these companies have privacy policies to ensure that such information specifically isn’t made public knowledge.

We aren’t tearing down the walls and trying to open ourselves up, as Noë suggests, but rather our right to privacy is being violated. Going back to the Fourth Amendment it begins:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…

And yet the government is scanning our persons and our houses, they are keeping copies of all our communication and correspondence, and they are logging all our information and opinions. This is not a choice. I signed no contract. I agreed to no privacy policy to tell them that they could do this.

Noë seems to be saying that just because it is this way, you and I have necessarily wanted it to be this way. He begins to conclude, saying:

Many of us are frightened to be reminded, this past week, that we have no right to email privacy. Our emails may be read. And many of us expressed shock at the thought that all of us all the time.

It is important to note here that Noë has confused laws and rights. Just because my e-mail is being seized and potentially searched does not mean that it ought to be by any standard, legal, moral or otherwise. I may (and I think I do) have a right to privacy of correspondence even though it is being violated. I am not “reminded” that I have “no right to email privacy.” I know that I have a privacy of correspondence. It is part of my liberty that flows from my self-ownership. My words are mine to share with whom I want. I am only reminded that my right to privacy of correspondence is being violated.

But Noë continues:

What have we got to hide? What have we got to protect? When has privacy ever been anything more than, like the LP-record or cheap fried food, a modern convenience, or, rather, an accident of modern living?

Noë writes this without even seeming to have a second thought: “What have we got to hide?” However, I can guarantee that Noë has something he would prefer be kept private, something he would want to protect. Just like the participants in Dan Dicks’ video, there is a point when your privacy becomes important to you.

Perhaps your hometown is something you’d tell anyone. But do you want everyone on the Internet to know your home address? Your parent’s address? Your phone number? You may be okay sharing a brief personal history. But are you okay sharing your bank account balances? Your healthcare record? Your social security number? You may be okay with people taking pictures of you from a street camera. But are you okay with them taking scans of your body? Touching your private parts?

The line is crossed somewhere. Perhaps for some the line seems further away than for others. But just because you want to use your right to privacy to make everything or a lot of things of yours public doesn’t mean that you have a right to force my information public as well.

Furthermore, I ask Noë to be a student of history for just a moment. When is the last time government surveillance was used on American citizens?  If the widespread surveillance of today had been available all throughout history, how would the story be different? I shudder to imagine.

However, at the end of the day, there is no better response to Noë than James Corbett’s video “Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Hide” prepared two months earlier on June 19, 2013. James Corbett says:

“If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.”

We’ve all heard this argument a million times when talking to people about the latest revelations of government snooping or the latest roll-out of creepy Orwellian technology. The implication is that the only people who complain about having their privacy violated are criminals who deserve to have their privacy violated. It is a simple phrase, learned by rote, that is meant to bring the conversation to a close.

…For some reason, people believe that allowing the government to spy on all of their electronic communications is somehow different. These aren’t random criminals on the street, after all, but government agencies. The information is not being accessed randomly, it is being used for official investigations into terrorism or wrongdoing. Our personal data, even our bank account numbers and personal histories, are surely safe with these government agencies and their trusted employees.

But think for a moment about the recent NSA spying scandal and what it has taught us. As much as Edward Snowden’s critics attempt to demonize him by pointing out that he is a high school dropout, an Army quitter, a lowly security guard who somehow or other flubbed his way into a job where he gained access to this top secret information, what these critics don’t realize is that they are making the very point for why we should not be happy entrusting our most personal information to a bunch of faceless government agencies. Because the faceless government agencies aren’t really faceless at all; they are populated by the very same types of potential criminals and nogoodniks that we would avoid sharing our personal information with on the street. Think about the extraordinary amount of data that someone like Snowden—a lowly employee of a subcontractor of the NSA—can access about you personally at any time he desires. As he himself stated: “I sitting at my desk certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you, to your accountant, to a federal judge to even the President if I had a personal email.”

You have something to fear about giving up private data to faceless individuals precisely because you have no idea how these people are going to use that information, or whether it will ever be misused. And when you realize that with the construction of the NSA’s new 1.5 million square foot data center in Utah the US government now has the ability to essentially store all of this data forever, you are entrusting your personal information not just to one potential criminal on the street, but to every single federal employee who ever has access to that data, and to anyone who might gain access to that data illegally. The government is essentially creating a trough of information that would be almost literally invaluable to any potential criminal or group of criminals, and making every effort to ensure that that trough is never emptied. How can anyone possibly be OK with this?

Think about this the next time someone tries to tell you they have nothing to hide.

However, Alva Noë at NPR has clearly not thought about it. After this confused attack against seclusion in the name of privacy, Noë concludes:

Media and technology are opening us up the way we have, for most of our history, been open to other people and the world around us. No man is an island. And most of us have no desire to be isolated.

If we really value privacy — if, for example, we really believe that being unobserved is necessary to securing our freedom in a democracy — then why are so few of us bothering to pull down the shades and lock the door?

Perhaps, Alva Noë, it’s because the government has taken even that power of privacy away from me. In order to “pull down the shades and lock the door,” I have to sacrifice all the tools of modern life: Internet, phone, car, plane, train, bus, bank accounts, credit cards, home ownership…. the list goes on.

Noë talks about openness like its a virtue, and perhaps it is in its pure form. But what’s the big deal about privacy? Without a right to privacy, my openness is not a great gesture of my love and trust of my fellow humans… it is a blatant seizure of my information. There is no virtue, no grand gesture, no beauty in what is acquired by force or seizure.

The violation of my right to privacy makes my real gift of openness to a specific person a meaningless act.

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Chief Operating Officer, CFP®, APMA®

Megan Russell has worked with Marotta Wealth Management most of her life. She loves to find ways to make the complexities of financial planning accessible to everyone. She is the author of over 800 financial articles and is known for her expertise on tax planning.