Why Privacy? 'The Power of Mind Over Mind'

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Why Privacy? 'The Power of Mind Over Mind'

I've noticed over the last few years that it's fairly common to pooh-pooh the concept of privacy.  "It's dead already", who needs it, if you've got nothing to hide, etc. In this Facebook world in which people eagerly share every thought that passes through their minds, it almost seems quaint. But it isn't. Privacy is fundamental to being a human being.

This interview with Glenn Greenwald is fascinating for any number of reasons and you should read the whole thing, but I was especially taken with his philosophical approach to this subject considering how important his reporting and analysis on the NSA revelations have been.  He said:

I think it's interesting because a lot of times people have difficulty understanding why privacy's important...and so what I try to do is look at human behavior, and what I find, I think, is that the quest for privacy is very pervasive. We do all kinds of things to ensure that we can have a realm in which we can engage in conduct without other people's judgmental eyes being cast upon us.
And if you look at how tyrannies have used surveillance in the past, they don't use surveillance in support of their tyranny in the sense that every single person is being watched at all times, because that just logistically hasn't been able to be done. Even now it can't be done -- I mean, the government can collect everybody's e-mails and calls, but they don't have the resources to monitor them all. But what's important about a surveillance state is that it creates the recognition that your behavior is susceptible to being watched at any time. What that does is radically alter your behavior, because if we can act without other people watching us, we can test all kinds of boundaries, we can explore all kinds of creativity, we can transgress pretty much every limit that we want because nobody's going to know that we're doing it. That's why privacy is so vital to human freedom.
But if we know we're being watched all the time, then we're going to engage in behavior that is acceptable to other people, meaning we're going to conform to orthodoxies and norms. And that's the real menace of a ubiquitous surveillance state: It breeds conformity; it breeds a kind of obedient citizenry, on both a societal and an individual level. That's why tyrannies love surveillance, but it's also why surveillance literally erodes a huge part of what it means to be a free individual.

It is literally a form of prison. In fact, there's a name for it:

The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow a single watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether they are being watched or not. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behavior constantly. The name is also a reference to Panoptes from Greek mythology; he was a giant with a hundred eyes and thus was known to be a very effective watchman.
The design consists of a circular structure with an “inspection house” at its centre, from which the manager or staff of the institution are able to watch the inmates, who are stationed around the perimeter. Bentham conceived the basic plan as being equally applicable to hospitals, schools, sanatoriums, daycares, and asylums, but he devoted most of his efforts to developing a design for a Panopticon prison, and it is his prison which is most widely understood by the term.
Bentham himself described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” Elsewhere, he described the Panopticon prison as “a mill for grinding rogues honest”.

Ubiquitous government surveillance, whether or not they are actually watching your every move, is by definition a form of authoritarianism. People adjust their behavior even if they don't know they are doing it. It automatically impinges on our basic human freedom.

People used to automatically understand this. I'm not sure when or how that changed but one thing is clear: all this handwringing about "trust in government" is overwrought. Most people seem to think it's just fine if the government has access to information about all of their communications, contacts and movements. And that can only mean they believe the government would never use it against them. And maybe it won't, But somewhere, in that back of all of our minds now, we know that they could. And that automatically changes us, even if we don't know it.


Despite ongoing anger about how the U.S. government is snooping on people around the world, one agency is still keen to boast about its spying - with a creepy cartoon octopus and an alarming logo.
A top-secret rocket carrying spy satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office launched from the central California coast late on Thursday, and it had a large badge emblazoned on the side.
The new logo features a huge and sinister octopus, with just one angry eye visible, as it wraps its tentacles round the globe. Written underneath is: 'Nothing Is Beyond Our Reach.'


Digby is the pseudonym of progressive political blogger Heather Parton from Santa Monica, California who founded the blog Hullabaloo.

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