Privacy R/evolution - Protecting Civil Liberties in the Digital Age

Let's Start a Privacy R/evolution on Oregon!

Privacy is a fundamental human right specifically recognized in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and inferred (and much argued about) in our Bill of Rights. The ACLU has worked for decades to protect individual privacy because privacy underpins human dignity and other key values such as freedom of association and freedom of speech.

Privacy has become one of the most important human rights issues of the modern age not because our value of privacy has changed but because the ways in which our privacy can be compromised have radically changed in the digital age. The constant stream of revolutionary new technologies is eroding existing protections and, the fact is, privacy laws have failed to evolve with emerging technologies. This is why the ACLU has launched the Protecting Civil Liberties in the Digital Age initiative to ensure that expressive, associational, and privacy rights are strengthened rather than compromised by new technology, and to protect these core democratic rights against intrusive corporate and government practices that rely on new technology to invade these rights.

What can we do, in Oregon, to protect privacy? Lots! Watch the video of our Privacy R/evolution workshop, learn more about the ACLU of Oregon's work on digital privacy, and find out ways you can become a privacy advocate.

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Nothing to Hide

We’ve all heard the retort “If you aren’t doing anything illegal why would you care if someone captures your [fill in the blank:] photo, license plate number, location, etc.?” And the ACLU member counters: “If I’m not doing anything illegal, why do the police need to record my [fill in the blank:] photo, license plate number, location, etc.?” It’s a great response. In essence, it points to our civilization’s core principle that the government is not supposed to look over our shoulder unless it has particularized suspicion that we are involved in wrongdoing. But this frequent refrain, “Why should I care about surveillance if I have nothing to hide,” needs more of a response.

Marvin Gordon-Lickey, member of the ACLU of Oregon Education Committee, has written an engaging and thought provoking essay titled: Do we still want privacy in the information age? In his piece, Marvin explores this question of why we should continue to care about our privacy in the face of technological advances. We encourage you to read his essay. In the meantime, when you need a quick response for the next person who says, “I have nothing to hide,” we’ve started a list of responses for you to try. And we welcome your ideas, as well. Send them to info@aclu-or.org – and use the subject line: Privacy Wanted.

Everyone should want privacy protections because:

1. No one is a saint. Some people do have something to hide, but not something that the government ought to gain the power to reveal. People hide many things from even their closest friends and family: the fact that they are gay, the fact that they are sick, the fact that they are pregnant, the fact that they are in love with someone else. Even though your private life may be especially straightforward, that should not lead you to support policies that would intrude on the more complicated lives of others. There’s a reason we call it private life.

2. One word: errors. You may not have anything to hide, but the government may think you do. If we allow the government to start looking over our shoulders just in case we might be involved in wrongdoing – mistakes will be made. You may not think you have anything to hide, but still might end up in the crosshairs of a government investigation, or entered into some government database, or worse. The experience with terrorist watch lists over the past 10 years has shown that the government is highly prone to errors, and tends to be sloppily over-inclusive in those it decides to flag as possibly dangerous.

3. Are you sure you have nothing to hide? There are a lot of laws on the books – a lot of very complicated laws on the books – and prosecutors and the police have a lot of discretion to interpret those laws. And if they decide to declare you public enemy #1, and they have the ability to go through your life with a fine-tooth comb because your privacy has been destroyed, they will find something you’ll wish you could hide. Why might the government go after you? The answers can involve muddy combinations of things such as abuse of power, mindless bureaucratic prosecutorial careerism, and political retaliation. On this point a quotation attributed to Cardinal Richelieu is often invoked: “Give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, and I’ll find something in them to hang him by.”

4. It’s none of their damn business. Everybody hides many things even though they’re not wrong. The ultimate example is the fact that most people don’t want to be seen naked in public. Nudity also makes a good metaphor for a whole category of privacy concerns: just because we want to keep things private doesn’t mean we’ve done anything wrong. And, it can be hard to give rational reasons why we feel that way – even those of us who feel most comfortable with our bodies. True, some people may be perfectly happy posting nude pictures of themselves online, but other people do not like to show even a bare ankle – and they should have that right. In the same way, there may not be anything particularly embarrassing about other details of our lives – but they are our details. The list of all the groceries you have purchased in the past year may contain nothing damaging, but you might not want a stranger looking over that either, because of that same difficult-to-articulate feeling that it would just be, somehow, invasive and none of their damned business.

5. Your data can cost you. You may not care about hiding it, but you may still be discriminated against because of it. Beyond the government, there are many commercial interests in data mining. And as a result, people are often denied benefits or given worse deals because some company decides that some behavior –entirely innocent and legal – might suggest they are apoor risk. For example, credit card companies sometimeslower a customer’s credit limit based on the repayment history of the other customers of stores where aperson shops.

6. Knowledge is power. But knowledge about you is power over you. Face it – we all have enemies, as well as friends, competitors as well as teammates. People, with the right information about us, might take advantage of us.To have control over the flow of information about yourself is to have privacy.

7. Just trust me. The more people you are open with, the more people you must trust. In an ideal world we would trust everyone to use the information they have about us in benevolent ways. In such a world we would have no worries about privacy or reputation.

8. Tyranny or Liberty. Do we have to worry about who is reading our e-mail, knows how much credit we have, what we said to our psychiatrist, what political party we support? Worries like these are the burdens of tyranny. Their absence is what we call liberty.

9. Privacy is about much broader values than just “hiding things.” Although many people will want more specific answers to the question such as the above, ultimately the fullest retort to the “nothing to hide” impulse is a richer philosophical defense of privacy that articulates its importance to human life – the human need for a refuge from the eye of the community, and from the self-monitoring that living with others entails; the need for space in which to play and to try out new ideas, identities, and behaviors without lasting consequences; and the importance of maintaining the balance of power between individuals and the state. 

Many thanks to Marvin Gordon-Lickey and Jay Stanley, Public Education Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project, for their insightful writings about privacy. We borrowed from their writings to create this list of responses as to why we deserve privacy.