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What is Digital Privacy?

Privacy in the real world is our ability to decide when to share information about ourselves, with whom and where. Privacy is deeply tied to intimacy. Sharing information about yourself with someone that few or no other people know is a meaningful act, and can create a bond. The inverse is true too: there are some things you may decide never to share with anyone, and you should certainly be the one who decides where the boundaries are for your physical spaces and your body. For these reasons and more, privacy is seen as a fundamental right in many countries in the world today.

When I was young, our house was broken into while we were away. I distinctly remember how upsetting it was to discover someone, or several people, had entered our home without permission. Once the police had been by and dusted for fingerprints, the sight of those prints on my bedroom door and desk left a powerful impression on me, much more so than the actual theft of my belongings.

Some argue that privacy is directly tied to identity, and that without privacy, we begin to lose our identity. We punish criminals by reducing or removing their personal privacy. Under dictatorial rule, maintaining personal privacy becomes a risk. George Orwell's famous novel 1984 examines this relationship between personal privacy and our sense of identity and self-worth. In Orwell's Oceania, it is nearly impossible for Winston and Julia to achieve personal privacy. Homes have networked cameras and microphones in them, and the government always knows where you are and what you are doing. When discussing a work like 1984, we describe this type of society as dystopian - a futuristic world that has gone wrong. And yet when I look around, it seems this is precisely the reality we are headed towards now.

Digital privacy is the same as privacy in the real world, but it is harder for us to see when it is being breached. Unlike the intruders' fingerprints I saw in my childhood bedroom after the break-in, the signs of digital invasions and thefts are often invisible to us.

Because the signs of intrusion and data harvesting are not obvious, people can become complacent and look the other way. "I have nothing to hide" is one of the most common responses to data collection. It is worth taking a moment to pause and think about the logic of that argument. When someone says they have nothing to hide, and that it is therefore acceptable for companies, governments or hackers to use someone's personal data for their own ends, they are proposing a strange premise about the default status of our rights. The I-have-nothing-to-hide argument says: it is OK for the door to my digital life to be open, and for strangers to enter, examine and collect the content of my emails, store my videos and photographs, and to record my online behaviour. It doesn't take much to see the problems with that approach; the default position should clearly be that the door to your personal data must be closed, and that only you should get to decide what information to give away, when and to whom, just like we expect to be able to do in the real world.

When an individual starts taking practical steps to safeguard their digital identity and data, they may get odd looks. Others might wonder: what are they trying to hide? The implication here is that if such a person employs tools used by criminals on the dark web - VPNs, cryptocurrencies, encrypted messaging, personal servers, encryption of files -, then perhaps they are trying to hide something nefarious themselves. The flaw in this kind of thinking is easily shown by applying the same logic to tools we already use in the real world. Cash, for example, is useful for criminals, because it is less traceable than digital bank transactions. Private physical spaces are helpful if you need to plan and organise an illegal activity. While all of that may be true, it would be silly to argue that, because cash and private rooms or offices can be used for illegal activities, we should ban their use for everyone. And yet that is the argument that is often presented about digital privacy-preserving tools like end-to-end encrypted messaging.

The first couple of decades of this millennium have shown how easy and tempting it is to make a small, seemingly innocuous trades over time: a little bit of my personal privacy for the convenience of a free, new digital tool or online service. We have to be smart and make sure we don't end up at some future point looking back and regretting all that we have given up.


I am indebted to excellent digital privacy podcasts like Opt Out and the weekly Surveillance Report for helping me see more nuanced perspectives around privacy and identity. In particular, I recommend the interview with Smuggler on Opt Out. He has thought deeply about the meaning of privacy and articulates his ideas well, with Seth acting as a great interviewer.

Privacy International

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