Privacy Is Overrated

There is a form of privacy that is highly overrated. When you participate in social gatherings, whether on the street or on Facebook, you must expect your privacy to be partly exposed. And, of course, if you throw bits of personal information on passers-by in the street – as some do by not protecting their home computer networks – then you can blame only yourself if somebody peeps at the electrons hitting him. If you want total privacy, life in society is not for you. Most individuals, however, are willing to sacrifice some privacy for the benefits of social life.

There is another form of privacy which, paradoxically, is much underrated, even though it is much more important and used to be the main reason people wanted to keep some information to themselves: privacy from the prying eyes of authority, that is, the state. A great paradox of our times is that people are hysterically concerned with providing information to private, voluntary relations, while they happily get naked in front of Big Brother. They don’t mind state agents opening their luggage or their letters, giving them “pat-downs” or scanning them, but they balk at private firms using innocuous information in order to provide them with voluntary services.

The greatest danger – in many ways, the only real danger – for privacy is the Surveillance State, its ID papers (“government-issued photo ID”) and databases, the indelible traces they leave, and the constant tracking that would be impossible without them. Young people don’t remember that, just a few decades ago, people lived, at least as happily, without this constant marking and tracking. Internet has not created this need: on the contrary, we can still make on-line transactions with only private identification means (especially in countries where, contrary to America, universal identifiers like the social security number are not required for obtaining credit cards). Although private suppliers love official ID papers, they could, and did, thrive without them. State surveillance is mainly useful to … the state.