After the revelation by Edward Snowden that the NSA was engaged in large-scale spying on American citizens, one common reaction among a certain class of citizens was: It doesn’t bother me; I’ve got nothing to hide. I heard the same statements from Conservative MPs when they were arguing for the passage of the draconian spy bill, C-51, in Canada. The argument goes; ordinary citizens have nothing to worry about; only criminals and terrorists have anything to hide from the government.
I’ll get to the deeper concerns in a moment but let’s start with the simple stuff. How do you feel about the government having access to your credit card number or bank account? Not a problem, you say, we can trust the government. Given how many of the same defenders of spying are also opposed to government on principle, that is pretty rich. However, there may be something real to worry about, too. Studies have shown that the tenth most likely job a psychopath will take is ‘civil servant.’ That’s right; you are going to hand your personal info over to Hannibal Lector.
How about you medical records? Increasingly, companies try to find out as much as they can about prospective employees including whether they have any pre-existing health conditions. Have you ever been treated for high blood pressure or gone to a counsellor for stress related issues? Do you want that information widely available? Given how sieve-like government systems often are, if the government knows, then corporations can find out – if the government doesn’t simply give it to them.
How about your dating history? While Ashley Madison may be the sleazy side of sexual relations (as well as a massive fraud perpetrated against their male customers), what about information on eHarmony? Do you really want it widely known that you’ve been rejected by 22 prospective partners? And how about that time you got into a disagreement with someone at AirBNB? Do you want every moment of anger recorded and held by some government agent to use against you when the time is right?
Because that is what is really at stake when there are not adequate protections of personal privacy. It is all well and good to say that you aren’t worried what the government knows about you when you happen to support the government in power. But what happens if the government changes? What happens when minority means you? Given the predilection for certain politicians to have ‘enemies’ lists, do you want your personal info available to people who consider you an enemy?
We’ve already seen civil servants and politicians at veterans affairs in Canada prepared to share and make public the mental health files of ex-soldiers who oppose their policies. Doesn’t it seem likely that the next time you express displeasure at something the government is doing – your private information will show up somewhere to hurt or embarrass you?
Because – as so many political candidates find—data, once recorded, never goes away and can turn up in the most unpleasant ways to damage your reputation and that of your organization. The information highway runs both ways.
And that’s ten minutes.