We all love good sci-fi films, such as those that show us some dystopian future surveillance state where the government monitors its citizens' every move. We eagerly follow the story, and enjoy the protagonist’s quest to restore privacy and freedom of speech, and bring down the centralized powers. We’re comforted by the belief that “it’s just a film — that could never happen here. Our freedoms are secure.”
One look at history, however, shows us that sudden and complete loss of freedom is actually a very real threat.
The construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 separated East Berlin from West Berlin overnight, resulting in the immediate loss of freedom for over a million people, including freedom of travel, speech, assembly, association, and economic activity. Those trapped in East Berlin had to endure this situation for 28 years.
The Iranian Revolution in 1979 led to the establishment of an Islamic republic and a rapid change in societal norms and personal freedoms, all within a single year. Women, in particular, lost many of their rights. In Hong Kong in 2020, China imposed its National Security Law, which granted authorities broad powers to crack down on dissent. The law resulted in the immediate suppression of speech, particularly of political expression, resulting in the arrest of pro-democracy activists, the disbandment of political opposition parties, and the closure of many independent media outlets.
The loss of freedom may also be happening where you are, but, much like the parable of a frog in boiling water, you may not notice it. Massive technological shifts over the past few decades have improved society in all kinds of ways, but this new digital landscape has also granted governments and corporations unprecedented abilities to surveil individuals. We are monitored, both online and offline, through CCTV cameras, biometric identification systems, and data-tracking software. Our personal information is collected and analyzed to create detailed profiles of our behavior and preferences, and these are used to manipulate our choices and decisions. Governments go so far as to mandate the installation of spyware on citizens' devices to monitor their communications and online activities. When people feel that they are being watched or monitored, they're less likely to express their opinions or engage in activism. Without private communication, agitation and pushback against authoritarianism becomes impossible out of fear of reprisal.
As privacy advocate Juan Angel put it in his essay “Privacy: The Hill to Die on”:
“Life in the panopticon of absolute digital surveillance forces humans to become shells of themselves, subjects who self-censor their own thoughts, behaviors, and expressions even in private interactions.”
The internet, originally viewed as an instrument of liberation, now has omnipresent tracking weaved into its every corner, and is fast evolving into the most potent enabler of totalitarianism we’ve ever seen. It’s essential that we safeguard privacy in this digital world, because it’s crucial for preserving an open society.
Yet, many people either don’t seem to notice the erosion of their privacy, or they don’t care. That’s because surveillance and censorship are often sold to us as essential tools for safeguarding our own well-being — necessary for protecting liberal values and ensuring that those in power can effectively catch the bad guys. Many people are often eager to demonstrate their moral purity, so they champion this noble cause and proudly proclaim that they “have nothing to hide.”
Such grandstanding blindly misses the fact that billions of people around the world do not enjoy the same rights as them, and surveillance and censorship are responsible for undermining their freedom and safety every day. The very privacy tools that are often criticized in the West for enabling criminal activity are crucial for individuals living under oppressive regimes. Compliance with the surveillance state is a luxury afforded only to those who are privileged enough to be shielded from the oppressive effects of this surveillance.
Even if you are lucky enough to live in a country with relatively high human freedom, your rights may not be as secure as you believe. You are not immune to future political changes. The preservation of your individual rights is contingent upon your ability to question authority and challenge prevailing narratives. Privacy is crucial for this.
Privacy, however, isn’t just about safeguarding against the potential rise of totalitarianism, or some catastrophic event that may or may not occur in our future — it's also essential for protecting ourselves from very real and constant threats in our present.
We give away personal information without a second thought, to every company, doctor’s office, and online retailer — but they often don’t keep our information safe. Data breaches are constant, and often undetected, and reveal sensitive personal information that can have a devastating effect on our reputation and our financial well-being. Malicious actors routinely use this sensitive data for identity theft, with tens of millions of people falling victim each year in the US alone. This financially ruins many.
Then there’s our real-time location data that is perpetually ingested by all kinds of services that we interact with. Cell providers are just one collector of this data, and they have a long history of selling it. If you’ve ever had a stalker, jilted ex-lover, or ruthless rival, then you’ll understand all too well why this is alarming.
People also unexpectedly become targets every day: Perhaps you said something years ago online that’s suddenly resurfaced, or perhaps you’ve attracted attention because of a desirable social media handle. Only when it’s too late do most people realize how easy it is for someone to find their home address on the internet, and now the safety of their family is at risk.
There’s also a more subtle danger that comes along with a lack of privacy, which many people miss. Consider that our daily activities are rapidly and increasingly transitioning into the digital world. Our interests, purchase histories, political affiliations, and activism are indiscriminately collected at all times.
What is this data used for?
Most obviously, it’s used by advertising and data broker companies to build comprehensive profiles of our preferences, habits, and beliefs. They either profit directly from this data, or they sell it to others. It’s a common instinct for most people to think that this data is harmless: “Why does it matter if a company knows my favorite color, and wants to sell me a better pair of shoes?”
But it may not just be shoes that they’re selling. They may be targeting us with content in an attempt to influence our views and opinions, drive us to artificially inflated emotional states, and manipulate and control our feelings.
Furthermore, this data doesn’t just stay with private companies — it’s often siphoned up by governments all over the world. Even if you trust your government not to misuse this data, and trust that there are no rogue employees in your government, a future government might not behave the same way. Regimes come and go, but this data is forever. It can be picked over at any time in the future, and we have no idea who might get access to it. All too often, there is little to no oversight or accountability about how this mass data being collected is actually utilized by governments.
Snowden points out in his book Permanent Record:
“This system of near-universal surveillance was set up not just without our consent, but in a way that deliberately hid every aspect of its programs from our knowledge. At every step, the changing procedures and their consequences were kept from everyone, including most lawmakers.”
The current narrative pushed on us by those who would have us sacrifice our privacy is that privacy and security are at odds with each other. The opposite is true. A world without privacy is less secure.
When journalists, whistleblowers, and activists cannot communicate without government surveillance, and share information with the public that is vital for holding our governments accountable, we are less secure.
When we can’t openly express ourselves because we know we’re perpetually monitored and we fear reprisal for thoughts that go against accepted mainstream dogma, our future as an open society is less secure.
When we can’t keep our personal information private, and instead must hand it over to countless entities that are unable to protect that information, our reputation and financial well-being is less secure.
Surveillance is an instrument of power consistently wielded by totalitarian regimes. Think of the precedents that we’re setting for future generations – If we normalize a lack of privacy, we risk creating a future society that resembles our most terrifying dystopian fiction stories of today.
Snowden once said: “It is, in a dark way, psychologically reassuring to say, ‘Oh, everything is monitored and there's nothing I can do. I shouldn't bother.’ The problem is that it's not true.”
The erosion of privacy is not inevitable, and we must fight in order to prevent it. We can make better choices in our lives that safeguard our privacy. We can push back against those who would take our privacy from us. But most importantly, we must start to care, and change the complacent culture around privacy. We must do this for our future because the stakes are too high.