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Seven lies about privacy (and how you can debunk them)

Truth or Lies

By Simon Davies

No human right has ever been subjected to as much deception and attack as privacy. I mean, no-one tries to dilute protections against torture by saying “it doesn’t really hurt anyone”. But privacy is open-season for anyone with an interest in killing it off. Here we summarise seven of the most common lies – and how you can counter them.

MES3732You can’t have good security as well as strong privacy.

This is one of the most dangerous lies. It’s often the case that the worst enemy of security is secrecy, where organisations operate without accountability or scrutiny. The US National Security Agency is one such example. The FBI throughout the 1950s and 1960s is another. Those agencies had all the privacy in the world – and all the secrecy in the world. The result was wholesale abuse of constitutional protections. Privacy safeguards do not prevent responsible use of personal information by law enforcement and national security agencies – but they do quite rightly prevent unaccountable and irresponsible use of that information.

There’s no point in complaining – they know everything anyway.

Neatly represented by Sun Microsystems chief Scott McNeally (“there is no privacy – get over it”) this is a scare argument promoted by people who want you to give up on privacy, However the claim is fake. “They” might know bits of your life, but those bits are usually contained in different silos that few organisations can 91516-FINALTOPSECRETlink together. 99 countries now have data protect laws that create real impediments to the linking of information. The data hyenas who want to know everything about you are constrained by the very laws that they condemn.

If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

This is like saying “only people with health problems have something to fear from health service cuts”. It’s a ridiculous argument promoted by people who should know better. The only circumstance when it might possibly be valid is when every aspect of data management by government and private sector is completely transparent and where those organisations enjoy unconditional public trust. In the real world this is an argument propagated by data hungry industries or by people who see the need for a knee-jerk response to a privacy issue that they – at that moment – aren’t invested in.

800px-Adriano_Cecchi_1850-1936_Rococo_scenePrivacy advocates are just paranoid. I don’t care about privacy.

Yes you do. People say this, but the reality is that they are usually responding to the latest news reports about a particular privacy scandal. I have never met a person who doesn’t care about privacy. Almost everyone is fiercely defensive about their home, and everyone resists invasions of privacy against their family. You might not care about big political issues like identity cards, but you sure will get angry if someone sells your child’s school records to an ad agency. And if you don’t, there’s probably something twisted about your parenting skills.

Privacy is not a real right because it has never been defined.

Quite the contrary. Privacy is a little like the concept of “freedom”. There’s no single accepted definition, but the diversity of ideas about it is what makes privacy such a powerful and universal idea. Sure, the law has defined certain elements of privacy, such as data protection, but it is a living and continually changing right. Public perceptions of privacy change and adapt according to the context and nature of threats. It is jagged, unpredictable and infinitely inexplicable – and that’s what makes it potent.Default_en-dataprotection-1

People don’t really care about privacy because they keep giving their information away.

This is a red herring. People do give their information away but they often get very angry if they are deceived about how it’s used. Data hyenas will always claim a contradiction, but their assertion is false. There was a time, for example, when Facebook enjoyed an enormous degree of public trust. People would cheerfully hand over their information in return for a cool service. Now, in the face of continuous deceptive practice, that trust has fallen to an all-time low.

Privacy is a middle-class Western concept.

People who argue this position are often middle-class Del239708Western data-mongers who want you to believe that developing countries don’t want or need privacy protection. It’s a tragically indecent proposition because it presents a false portrayal of the scale of privacy concerns universally. Countries outside the G-20 major economies may have a different set of concepts about privacy, but they still have strong privacy beliefs. US corporations for example argue that Asia should not have privacy law because of the “Indian Train Syndrome” in which total strangers will disclose their lives on a train to complete strangers. In fact the Indian Train Syndrome shows exactly why Indians care about privacy. They speak only to strangers who they will never again meet, they speak anonymously – and they often become extremely angry if other people talk about those disclosures. It’s all about having control over disclosure – one of the central pillars of information privacy.