Why Do We Care So Much About Privacy?

Louis Menand in The New Yorker: “…Possibly the discussion is using the wrong vocabulary. “Privacy” is an odd name for the good that is being threatened by commercial exploitation and state surveillance. Privacy implies “It’s nobody’s business,” and that is not really what Roe v. Wade is about, or what the E.U. regulations are about, or even what Katz and Carpenter are about. The real issue is the one that Pollak and Martin, in their suit against the District of Columbia in the Muzak case, said it was: liberty. This means the freedom to choose what to do with your body, or who can see your personal information, or who can monitor your movements and record your calls—who gets to surveil your life and on what grounds.

As we are learning, the danger of data collection by online companies is not that they will use it to try to sell you stuff. The danger is that that information can so easily fall into the hands of parties whose motives are much less benign. A government, for example. A typical reaction to worries about the police listening to your phone conversations is the one Gary Hart had when it was suggested that reporters might tail him to see if he was having affairs: “You’d be bored.” They were not, as it turned out. We all may underestimate our susceptibility to persecution. “We were just talking about hardwood floors!” we say. But authorities who feel emboldened by the promise of a Presidential pardon or by a Justice Department that looks the other way may feel less inhibited about invading the spaces of people who belong to groups that the government has singled out as unpatriotic or undesirable. And we now have a government that does that….(More)”.