I had the pleasure to listen to Oxblood Ruffin at All India Privacy Symposium at New Delhi last week & was hugely impressed by the way he put the case for on-line privacy in very simple yet extremely persuasive words. I particularly liked the analogy between our virtual selves and our covered real selves. I have included the complete statement for the readers.
The online citizenry of any country is part of its national security infrastructure. And the extent to which individual privacy rights are protected will determine whether democracy continues to succeed, or inches towards tyranny. The challenge then is to balance the legitimate needs of the state to secure its sovereignty with protecting its most valuable asset: The citizen.
It has become trite to say that 9/11 changed everything. Yet it is as true for the West as it is for the global South. 9/11 kickstarted the downward spiral of individual privacy rights across the entire Internet. It also ushered in a false dichotomy of choice, that in choosing between security and privacy. It was privacy that had adapt to the new realities, or so we’ve been told.
Lets examine some of the fallacies of this argument.
* The false equation. Many argue that we must give up privacy to ensure security. But no one argues the opposite. We needn’t balance the costs of surveillance over privacy, because rarely banning a security measure protects privacy. Rather, protecting privacy typically means that government surveillance must be subjected to judicial oversight and justification of the need to surveil. In most cases privacy protection will not diminish the state’s effectiveness to secure itself.
* The deference argument. Security advocates insist that the courts should defer to elected officials when evaluating security measures. But when the judiciary weighs privacy against surveillance, privacy almost always loses. Unless the security measures are explored for efficacy they will win every time, especially when the word terrorism is invoked. The courts must take on a more active role to balance the interests of the state and its citizens.
* The war time argument. Security proponents argue that the war on terror requires greater security and less privacy. But this argument is backwards. During times of crisis the temptation is to make unnecessary sacrifices in the name of security. In the United States, for example, we saw that Japanese-American internment and the McCarthy-era witch-hunt for Communists was in vain. The greatest challenge for safeguarding privacy comes during times when we are least inclined to protect it. We must be willing to be coldly rational and not emotional during such times.
We are often told that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. This is the most pervasive argument the average person hears. But isn’t privacy a little like being naked? We might not be ashamed of our bodies but we don’t walk around naked. Being online isn’t so different. Our virtual selves should be as covered as our real selves. It’s a form of personal sovereignty. Being seen should require our consent, just as in the real world. The state has no business taking up the role of Peeping Tom.
I firmly believe that the state has a right and a duty to secure itself. And I equally believe that its citizens are entitled to those same rights. Citizens are part of the national security infrastructure. They conduct business; they share information; they are the benefactors of democratic values. Privacy rights are what, amongst others, separate us from the rule of tyrants. To protect them is to protect and preserve democracy. It is a fight worth dying for, as so many have done before us.
You can follow Oxblood on Twiitter @Oxbloodruffin