Privacy is Power

September 14, 2020

Don’t just give away your privacy to the likes of Google and Facebook – protect it, or you disempower us all.

Imagine having a master key for your life. A key or password that gives access to the front door to your home, your bedroom, your diary, your computer, your phone, your car, your safe deposit, your health records. Would you go around making copies of that key and giving them out to strangers? Probably not the wisest idea – it would be only a matter of time before someone abused it, right? So why are you willing to give up your personal data to pretty much anyone who asks for it?

Privacy is the key that unlocks the aspects of yourself that are most intimate and personal, that make you most you, and most vulnerable. Your naked body. Your sexual history and fantasies. Your past, present and possible future diseases. Your fears, your losses, your failures. The worst thing you have ever done, said, and thought. Your inadequacies, your mistakes, your traumas. The moment in which you have felt most ashamed. That family relation you wish you didn’t have. Your most drunken night.

When you give that key, your privacy, to someone who loves you, it will allow you to enjoy closeness, and they will use it to benefit you. Part of what it means to be close to someone is sharing what makes you vulnerable, giving them the power to hurt you, and trusting that person never to take advantage of the privileged position granted by intimacy. People who love you might use your date of birth to organise a surprise birthday party for you; they’ll make a note of your tastes to find you the perfect gift; they’ll take into account your darkest fears to keep you safe from the things that scare you.

Not everyone will use access to your personal life in your interest, however. Fraudsters might use your date of birth to impersonate you while they commit a crime; companies might use your tastes to lure you into a bad deal; enemies might use your darkest fears to threaten and extort you. People who don’t have your best interest at heart will exploit your data to further their own agenda. Privacy matters because the lack of it gives others power over you.

You might think you have nothing to hide, nothing to fear. You are wrong – unless you are an exhibitionist with masochistic desires of suffering identity theft, discrimination, joblessness, public humiliation and totalitarianism, among other misfortunes. You have plenty to hide, plenty to fear, and the fact that you don’t go around publishing your passwords or giving copies of your home keys to strangers attests to that.

You might think your privacy is safe because you are a nobody – nothing special, interesting or important to see here. Don’t shortchange yourself. If you weren’t that important, businesses and governments wouldn’t be going to so much trouble to spy on you.

You have your attention, your presence of mind – everyone is fighting for it. They want to know more about you so they can know how best to distract you, even if that means luring you away from quality time with your loved ones or basic human needs such as sleep. You have money, even if it is not a lot – companies want you to spend your money on them. Hackers are eager to get hold of sensitive information or images so they can blackmail you.

Insurance companies want your money too, as long as you are not too much of a risk, and they need your data to assess that. You can probably work; businesses want to know everything about whom they are hiring – including whether you might be someone who will want to fight for your rights. You have a body – public and private institutions would love to know more about it, perhaps experiment with it, and learn more about other bodies like yours.

You have an identity – criminals can use it to commit crimes in your name and let you pay for the bill. You have personal connections. You are a node in a network. You are someone’s offspring, someone’s neighbour, someone’s teacher or lawyer or barber. Through you, they can get to other people. That’s why apps ask you for access to your contacts. You have a voice – all sorts of agents would like to use you as their mouthpiece on social media and beyond. You have a vote – foreign and national forces want you to vote for the candidate that will defend their interests.

As you can see, you are a very important person. You are a source of power.

By now, most people are aware that their data is worth money. But your data is not valuable only because it can be sold. Facebook does not technically sell your data, for instance. Nor does Google. They sell the power to influence you. They sell the power to show you ads, and the power to predict your behaviour. Google and Facebook are not really in the business of data – they are in the business of power. Even more than monetary gain, personal data bestows power on those who collect and analyse it, and that is what makes it so coveted.

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