Secrecy vs. Privacy

People at work often ask why I have a piece of Post-It note over my computer’s camera. I respond that I don’t want my own government–or anyone for that matter–spying on me. (I’m not being paranoid. Hacking someone’s computer camera is a real thing.) People’s usual response is this: Why? Are you hiding something?

This seems like sound logic: “I’m okay with the government spying on me because I have nothing to hide. If you are opposed to the government spying on you it must be because you’re hiding something.” But while the logic seems tidy it is flawed and the flaw stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what privacy is.

Privacy is the state of freedom from public disturbance or attention. Simply put, private is what is not public. What my co-workers are referring to when they ask “are you hiding something?”, is secrecy. While the definitions of these terms are sometimes synonymous they are conceptually different.

Take this example: I have am intimate with my wife. That is not a secret–I have children. I’m not hiding it per se. It is a normal, healthy, beautiful thing. But if videos or pictures of me in an intimate encounter with my wife were taken surreptitiously and posted on the Internet or in the staff lounge I would be livid. Not because it is a secret but because it is private.

There are a host of other seemingly innocuous examples. A Christmas card my wife gave me. A phone call to a friend where I complain about my work. Awkward family photos. Drafts of my books. And so on. If these things were made public without my consent would it ruin my life? No. Might I consider sharing them at some future time? Yes. But the if and when and how of that sharing is up to me because the Christmas card and the conversation and the photo are parts of a life that is entirely my own. That is the core of privacy.

In our attention-whoring media culture a life that is entirely one’s own may seem to be an unimportant value. It is not. Even people who have “nothing to hide” don’t post every single photo on their phone to Instagram. Is it because they’re secrets? No. It’s because they recognize (consciously or not) the benefit of having a life entirely their own–a private life.

With the conceptual distinction between privacy and secrecy a little more clear let’s return to the initial example of a government gathering intelligence. It’s easy to dismiss this invasion of privacy because 1) it keeps the “bad guys” at bay and 2) it happens clandestinely. It’s hard to argue with the first point. Especially when the unfortunate reality of intelligence work is that only your screw-ups are published. I think it’s easy to downplay the second point too. Out of sight, out of mind. But imagine it this way:

Federal agents come to your door saying they have a warrant to search your house but they can’t show it to you because it was issued by a secret court (or maybe they have no warrant at all). You let them into your home. So as to not make a mess, they put little blue booties on over their dress shoes. You ask what they’re looking for.

They reply, “Nothing in particular. Just any evidence that you have committed or plan to commit a crime against the United States of America.”

They efficiently look through every paper in the filing cabinet. They open and read your mail, your journal, your diary. They unlock your phone and read all your messages and look through your photos. When they are done they return everything to its proper place. They politely thank you for your time, take off their little blue booties, and open the door.

As they leave you say goodbye. They reply, “Don’t bother saying ‘goodbye’. We’ll see you tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day. And the next. And the next…”
“What if I’m not home?” you ask.
“Don’t worry about it,” they reply. “We have the key to your house.”

Would you be okay with that? Why not? Is it because you’re hiding something?

See also:
How the NSA betrayed the world’s trust – time to act | Mikko Hypponen