Privacy: The Political Divider

Privacy issues are political dividers. Either you take the classical liberal stand – that citizens are individuals, who should be judged by their actions, or you choose a socialist or conservative stand – where citizens are to be seen and treated as a collective.

Almost no one denies the need for surveillance when it comes to people who are suspected of serious crimes (or obvious preparation of such crimes).

The issue is if you want surveillance of all citizens, all the time. Just in case.

The public Big Brother discourse seems to focus on things like terrorism, drug cartels, human trafficking, sexual abuse of children, public order, and similar alarming issues.

But the justification for surveillance has nothing to do with the approach to it as such. Everything can be excused. Practically everything.

We cannot draw the line on a case-by-case basis, as the boundaries of what our elected representatives deems to be acceptable or not keeps changing depending on time, zeitgeist and place. There are no guarantees that the ruling classes will use surveillance for reasonable purposes only, at all times.

We must draw a line that stands on principle.

Surveillance should only be used if there is a tangible suspicion of a crime being committed, or about to be committed.

When this principle is established – but no earlier – you can take on the day-to-day discussion about what should be legal and illegal. That is a neverending and ever-changing process.

We must accept and respect the right to privacy as a fundamental human right.

Today’s day-by-day and case-by-case approach will, with absolute certainty, lead to the right to privacy being hollowed out altogether. You need only give politics a glance to understand that.

A society without the right to privacy will be a highly unpleasant, hostile and dangerous society. Especially for the innocent.

We, the people, must demand our right to privacy back. Because no one else will do it for us.

Originally posted at The Embedded Citizen and at Hax’ private blog in Swedish.


  1. jimbo

    i think that it is far too late for the people to demand anything. governments everywhere, democratically elected or not, are not interested in anything or anyone other than imposing as many freedom-removing and privacy-removing laws as they possibly can on to the people. while doing this, they are also making sure that there are as many protections as possible being put into place so as to ensure that their best buddies in industry are never going to have to justify whatever it is that they want or want to do. this all started many years ago but, in my opinion, has intensified dramatically because of the devastating attack on The World Trade buildings in New York in 2001. as bad as that was, i feel the US response has been typically OTT. they seem to be of the opinion that there is a terrorist behind every door, every tree in every country, just waiting to blow up more unsuspecting Americans and the way to tackle it is to have as much surveillance as possible, on as many people as possible, in as many situations as possible. not content with that, they are forcing their opinions and measures on to as many other countries as possible, threatening sanctions etc if there is any sort of resistance. the biggest thing i think they have forgotten is that when there is something serious that is gonna happen, it isn’t the ordinary person that instigates it or carries it out. looking closer to home at the more powerful people that are supposed to be the ‘pillars of society’ would have more success. in the mean time, as per usual, it’s never the rich, powerful and famous that lose anything, it’s the ordinary citizens that lose more and more, suffer more and more and gain less and less, if anything at all. whenever anyone tries to fight ‘the system’, what happens? basically, nothing! why? because no one that could make a difference gives a toss! a good example was the recent ‘dinner over the homeless people’ issue. not just a joke, a bloody insult!

  2. Ano Nymous

    I’m afraid that very few people realize just how dangerous mass surveillance is, and won’t do so until death at a massive scale occurs. By then the only remedy will be more death: the fourth box, which Rick mentioned in an article not too long ago, will be the only one that still works.

    The only way to prevent that it goes that far, is education. The only way of educating that many people is by mainstream media. Mainstream media is controlled by those who don’t want such education to occur. Catch 22.

  3. Richard Childers

    When thinking about violations of privacy, I am reminded of the abuse of the phrase, “probable cause”.

    When I hear authorities asserting that they have “probable cause”, I would, sometimes, like to ask them what they estimate that probability is.

    If such an authority were honest with themselves, they would admit that, often, that probability is less than 50% – or, they may not even know what the probability is, at all. The estimate may be based upon presumptions and assumptions, rather than rational discourse – specious thinking, concealed behind a curtain of ‘official confidentiality’ and – too funny! – ‘concerns about privacy’.

    Which means, it is not PROBABLE. cause It is POSSIBLE cause. That is an entirely different thing.

    And so we see that those in authority are as vulnerable to muddy thinking as anyone else. Their reasoning is faulty. And they know it.

    Perhaps, if we insisted upon a more rigid definition of “probable cause” – say, requiring the entire statement to be phrased as a sequence of IF/THEN statements, so that the reasoning is clear to all …instead of allowing the emotional impact of the words, “probable cause”, to overcome our capacity for rational behavior …

    … Then, we, as a human society, would would be able to engineer an increased level of privacy, by incorporating additional, linguistic mechanisms, to negate the natural tendency of some humans to be influenced by access to power.

  4. Anonymous

    something that should be added, although it is a bit of a different subject is the extra-marital affair of David Petraeus, the now former (but only just) CIA director and renowned general. the point being as raised above, it’s the important, rich and/or famous that need watching the closest. perhaps if more heed had been paid to what this guy was doing (particularly by the FBI, instead of the ‘make believe terrorist threats i keep reading about that they have invented so as to maintain their high level of funding!) rather than concentrating on the lives of ordinary, innocent people, there would not have been the ‘lightning bolt’ that came with the disclosure. yes, ordinary people have affairs and yes, people get emotionally hurt, but they are not normally involved with watching or maintaining a nations’ security. that could have led to a disaster! bit different to sharing a movie, though, eh?

  5. printersMate

    The most useful axis for judging politicians and political activists is one running from anarchists at one end, through libertarians, small government people, large government people, to totalitarians. Most active politicians, whether from the left or right, are in the large government or totalitarian camp. At this end of the spectrum there is also a strong tendency to holding strong political beliefs, or a self belief in knowing what is best for the population. There is little difference between such people and fundamentalist religious people, opposing views are heretics and need to be converted to the true ‘faith’, by force if necessary.
    In western democracies, in part due to the type of person attracted to party politics, the central parties have turned the grass root parties into supporter organisations, rather than an active part of policy making. This allows the parties to drift further towards the totalitarian end of the spectrum, resulting in elected politicians that lean towards this part of the spectrum. This does drive most people out of active participation in politics, and low turnout in elections because they feel that they cannot influence the politicians.
    While western democracies place some restraints on such people, they will jump at any excuse to monitor and control a population. Police and security services attract people who will exercise power over other people at the command of their masters, and will obviously try to make their jobs easier by asking for laws that make data available to them without having to bother with warrants and other legal niceties. Because of the drift towards the totalitarian end of the spectrum the politicians are more likely accede to these requests rather than acting in the public interest and denying such demands.
    People at the other end of the spectrum do not desire the exercise of control over their fellow citizens, and usually have a much more pragmatic approach to politics. The small government people will stand as independents, but the political parties have convinced most people that voting independent is a wasted vote. While their are few real anarchists, most people accept that some laws are necessary which makes them libertarians rather than anarchists. (an aside most so called anarchists that want to use violence to overthrow a government are really at the other end of the spectrum and oppose the existing government and want some form of one party state).
    The libertarian end of the spectrum can be argumentative, and will accept that no law is required to deal with an issue, but rather people should make up their own mind. This is the world of the occupy movement, and the free and open source software movement. They can effectively organise when required, see @OccupySandy. efforts in New York.
    Defeating the big brother tendency in politics require convincing the public to vote for independents and small parties, selling a message of decentralisation and placing limits on the powers of higher level governments. Hopefully the Internet will allow a movement towards this more decentralised and libertarian government, and allow pressure to put on the existing politicians to block bad laws from being passed. The alternative is increasingly totalitarian system until it eventually collapses or is overthrown by a revolution.

  6. n

    But if most people infringe on copyrights on the internet, then you have probable cause to suspect everyone, right?

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