Why Privacy Matters

“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

That line has been parroted by government officials, law enforcement officers, and members of the media, but there is a flaw in this argument; in fact, there are several.

We have all done things we would like to change. There are episodes in all of our lives we are less than proud of. Haven’t we all picked our noses at some point in time? That surely does not mean that we want it displayed on YouTube. However, these indiscretions are not crimes. In the light of public opinion, and with the ubiquitous and timeless nature of the internet, we will end up being judged for these indiscretions longer than a murderer will have to serve a sentance. Getting a job could be jeopardized forever over some small indiscretion which may become taboo in the near future, despite being harmless.

There are cultural considerations, too. What if something is normal in one society but scandalous in another? Wouldn’t job prospects then be limited in a global marketplace despite being later sensitized to such a thing? Ignorance, it is said, is no escape from the law; can it then be considered the same way for a cultural peccadillo?

Perhaps this is what is meant by original sin?!?

The recent hacking scandal in which the USA lost millions of personnel records and millions of fingerprints was attributed to Chinese hackers (if the Chinese could do such a thing, wouldn’t they be able to make it look like the Russians did it.) No matter who did it, the point is that as with all digital technologies, the ability to hold those records safely is non-existant. If it can be programmed, it can (and will eventually) be hacked. Be it software, hardware, databases, or websites, there will always be an entry point – otherwise it couldn’t be programmed or updated. The result of this is that now some hacker has the biometric information of millions of Americans. If one loses their password, it can be changed. What does one do when their fingerprints are stolen? And what was the security clearance of the person who lost those prints? Entry into some of the countries most secure locations can be attained with a 3-D printer and a silicon glove. The more secure (unique) the information stolen is, the more dangerous it becomes.

This raises the issue of backdoors, be they built into software, allow principles access to students’ lockers in the form of master keys, or are built into systems of the national security state. The NSA has been caught intercepting deliveries and putting physical backdoors into computer equipment destined for foreign customers in order to facilitate spying. This principle is crucial to understanding how security works. This story on Ars Technica demonstrates some of the many problems raised in the interest of increased security. Doors are designed to open, whether they are locked or not. Keys can be stolen, duplicated, or bypassed, and this applies to digital keys as well as their physical counterparts. A lock on the front door which relies upon biometrics can, in some cases, more easily be opened surreptitiously than one with a physical key; no damage is done to the doorjamb and entry is more difficult to detect. This metaphor extends into the digital world, as well.

What if work on artificial intelligence or nano-technology was stolen by someone who could not control it? What if voting machines were hacked? One might say that these machines need simply be taken off-line; to which one could respond that with the advent of wireless technology, this may not be a solution, and that there may not be a solution.