Privacy and Power

Cover image for Privacy and Power

“You shouldn’t be worried if you have nothing to hide.”

This is the calling card of those who see nothing wrong with the loss of our privacy. During this past social cause, we’ve talked about digital privacy, because this is a major focus of the Web3 that we want to build. But, as the “Digital Privacy” cause comes to a close, we also want to zoom out on the issue of privacy more generally. Why does it matter so much? And who would want to get rid of it?

Well, to answer the first question, we must first answer the second one. And the answer is: everybody who has authority, or desires authority, has an incentive to get rid of privacy.

Consider the following hypothetical scenario:

A young person of modest means has been brought to trial by a large and powerful organization. Say, a corporation, or even the government itself. What would happen if the privacy of this young person were not ensured? If, for example, their consultations with a lawyer were made public? The powerful organization already has every advantage imaginable. And now, it would be able to undermine the tiny bit of leverage that the young person has. In other words, it is only because of privacy that this individual can stand any kind of chance!

For another example, consider the innovation of the secret ballot in democratic elections. Before secret ballots, people faced reprisals from bad actors who wanted to intimidate them into voting a certain way.

Privacy is power. And those who want a monopoly on power will always seek to destroy privacy.

They’ll never state this as the reason, of course. And even in their own minds, they may not think of it in those terms. Power, when wielded by the immoral and unscrupulous, is always a dangerous thing—and this applies just as much to privacy. So there are any number of ways that people can justify measures to take away privacy, based on very real crimes enabled by that privacy. And these justifications often play into a very primal aspect of our moral psychology.

Of course we don’t want predators to be able to harm children. Of course we don’t want mass shooters to be able to carry out their attacks. Of course we don’t want swindlers to be able to defraud the elderly.

But there’s a catch. Why do we think the people policing our privacy are morally superior to everyone else? There will also be immoral and unscrupulous people among those enforcing the measures that take away our privacy “for our own good”. And, on balance, the capacity for harm from centralized states is far larger than any random individual or group.

Privacy can allow for dangerous and horrible things to happen, it’s true. But getting rid of privacy will ensure that dangerous and horrible things happen, on an even larger scale. This has played out over and over again over the course of human history.

We can even see it playing out right before our eyes. We’ve seen how a mob whipped up into a moralistic frenzy is not inclined to give anybody the benefit of the doubt. They’ll even ignore empirical facts which contradict the narrative driving their outrage! And it’s these sorts of mobs that always insist that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to worry about.

Privacy is an essential part of any equitable and fair society, and we should be deeply suspicious of anybody who wants to take that power away from us. Even if they say it’s “for our own good”, justifying it in the name of safety, fairness, or equality. There will always be many pretty-sounding reasons to violate privacy: “national security”, “equity”, “social justice”, “saving the children”, etc, etc.

Any time we find ourselves nodding along with these justifications, we must remember that societies that don’t protect privacy always fall victim to the same consequences. We should take a moment to look at the world around us, to look at history, and ask ourselves: Is sacrificing our privacy really worth it?