philosophy · politics

Privacy, mine too

The Dutch government has, at the beginning of this year, introduced a new law to update the authority of the national security service. The law has been described by some as a “dumb version of the patriot act”. It allows the breach of privacy of innocent citizens on a scale unprecedented in the Netherlands. For instance, the national security service is now allowed to put so-called prisms, wholesale taps, on internet cables at any point and monitor all internet traffic passing through indiscriminately. Because of the tree structure of the physical communication network that runs the Internet, this essentially means all data traffic in the entire nation. Consequently, the government and the secret service have promised, though notably not by any contract or signed document, that they will not abuse this newly granted power. I’m not sure if I should point out the obvious, but spy agencies are run on mistrust and disinformation. If there’s one occupational group that shouldn’t be trusted, it’s probably spies.

What strikes me as odd is the parallel public debate about sexual harassment and assault, popularly referred to as the MeToo discussion. This because both breach of privacy and sexual assault can be defined as some type of violation of the person. We seem to live in a society of unbridled individualism, where people and notably politicians are struggling to define any kind of communal identity. The person, it seems, is in some sense the greatest good. Sexual assault is, of course, a physical violation of the person. But breach of privacy is a violation of a person’s private life. Don’t fool yourself, the latter can be just as devastating as the former.

The recurring theme with proponents is security against terrorism. The argument goes that breach of privacy on such a large scale is necessary to defend ourselves against the dangers of terrorist. Even if we’d have a good reason to believe this, are we really willing to legitimise violation of the person by government institutions for that? Perhaps we allow the secret service and the government to violate the person so easily, because many don’t realise how much our lives are online nowadays. However, you can probably learn more about a person through their online behaviour than classical stake-out type surveillance. Imagine you have all their emails, social media, internet shopping, Netflix, porn, bank data, everything.

Strangely enough, though, no terrorist has ever been caught using these type of methods. Probably because they’re smarter than to openly admit their terrorist inclinations online. To give an example, it’s known that some terrorist groups favour communication by whatsapp, because it’s end-to-end encrypted. This caused the French government, in blind panic I might add, to propose making any form of encrypted communication illegal. Needless to say, the banks and major corporations objected. The tone in the Dutch law is perhaps slightly more subtle, but this flavour is there too: make everyone less safe in the hope of also making the bad guys less safe.

The fact that laws like these haven’t brought anything to the table is an important point. The question is therefore not one of trade-off between privacy in favour of security, it’s simply forfeiting privacy. No counterpart. Many people say: “I don’t mind, I don’t have anything to hide.” Well, I’m afraid if you’re one of those people that you’ve missed the point. It’s none of their goddamn business.

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