One of the greatest fallacies that humans continue to fall for is that privacy can be given up for safety. But because safety is actually based on privacy, our efforts to be safe at the cost of privacy is entirely counterproductive. We sacrifice privacy at our peril.
WHEN FORMER NSA technical assistant, Edward Snowden, blew the whistle on the US and UK governments' global communications spying campaign, involving both phone calls and internet communications (including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Skype, Apple, AOL, YouTube and Paltalk), the old argument of "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" has once again been wheeled out in discussions and forums around the world as the standard response by those who naively believe that "democratic" governments generally act in the interests of their electorate.
We hold tight this perspective of democracy because it is comforting for us to believe that the men and women we elect are working in our interest, just as it is comforting for young children to believe that their parents have their interests at heart, even in the face of direct parental abuse. This blind insistence on benignity of governments and parents is due to the enormous disparities of power involved: it is a basic psychological survival mechanism to view the powerful through rose-tinted glasses. And the greater the power difference, the more the people will choose to look the other way when that power is abused.
Power is almost invariably abused by those who have it because it is co-opted by the ego, and all egos are ultimately insane, even the seemingly well-adjusted ones. As the old saying goes: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Human psychology actually encourages disparity in power: those who have power always seem to want more; and those who feel powerless invariably try to supplicate protection from those with power, without realizing that they are only disempowering and thus endangering themselves further in the process.
This is why it is so important for governmental power to be limited and accountable by law: mass psychological forces are not only unable to do, but enable further power disparity. And it is not just government power that needs to be limited and accountable, but EVERY situation where human beings have power and control over other human beings. Power always corrupts, which is why it is important that it be dispersed as much as possible in society and kept to the absolute minimum needed for society to function efficiently. Any time power accumulates, knowingly or unknowingly, corruption and abuse are sure to follow.
Modern democracy is a system of government which tries to disperse power among the adult population by allowing them to vote for the government that they believe will best suit their interests and that of their society in general. Those of us who live in democracies generally consider ourselves to be free because we have the power to choose our leaders and as a consequence governmental policies. But the reality of democracy is very different to the ideal — modern democracies encourage power concentrations for the following reasons:
- the massive corporations who own and control the mass media influence how the general population perceive the different political parties, and are therefore able to skew elections to favour corporate agendas;
- only those who have massive corporate sponsorship or private wealth can afford to run for election, and so government candidates are preselected and far more likely to favor corporate and elitist agendas;
- politicians generally promise anything to get into power, but once elected popular policies are quickly but on the back burner as other agendas in the interest of corporations and other organisations (who have usually bankrolled their election campaign and who will be their future employers) are brought forward;
- elected politicians are constantly being wined and dined by professional lobbyists employed by the corporate sector and other special interest groups (such as the military) whose job is to skew government policy and funding in their direction;
- most political careers at government level are relatively short, so politicians understandably pursue policies that favor big businesses — their future employers;
- governments employ multitudes of leading industrialists as consultants and non-elected government officials in order to push corporate agendas, and coupled with 5) above this is the so called revolving-door employment situation between politics and big business which results in government that will favour corporate interests when they clash with the people's interest (which they often do);
- people may vote in governments, but governments are increasingly controlled by higher level corporate-friendly agendas (such as Codex Alimentarius, EU diktats and world banking regulations) derived undemocratically by international NGOs, super-government organisations and the world banking mafia that ordinary people never voted for and cannot vote out of power;
- governments and corporations, working hand-in-hand, extensively spy on their own electorate in order to maintain their power advantage, allowing them the feedback to "steer" the general population into making "correct" voting choices that maintain existing power structures, and to stamp out dissent and protest before it can can jeopardize government, military, corporate and banking interests.
The above, which is by no means an exhaustive list, are some of the reasons why modern democracies are very far from their democratic ideal and concentrate power in the wealthy corporate sector and other organisations (such as bankers and the military), skewing the whole "democratic" process into serving these special interest groups at the expense of the general public. This is also why today those of us living in modern democracies feel we have merely become cogs in a massive Orwellian machine that does not have our interests at heart.
Indeed, democracy is now more of a national branding than it is a type of government. Take the United States, for example: this once great nation clings to its moniker "the land of the free" when in fact it is closer to a police state where the only freedoms are now superficial ones — what to buy, what music to listen to, what television show to watch and what fast food to eat. These choices are not real freedom, but the semblance of freedom.
Real freedom involves more important choices such as: what type of government we want and its level of involvement in our lives; what type and level of public healthcare to have; what checks and balances to place on the corporate, banking and military sectors; how much we are willing to allow media monopolies which distort our view of the world with its incessant propaganda; and the balance between privacy and safety. These types of choices have the biggest ramifications for society, but they are simply not choices given to the electorate.
The democratic ideals have been morphed into a semblance of democracy by both the elite and the general public for their mutual benefit: this way the general public can pat itself on the back for having the good fortune to live in a "free" and "democratic" society where it can buy anything it wants and is protected by a powerful elite, whilst the elite can continue to reap massively disproportionate power and wealth from this "free" and "democratic" society. Everyone wins except those with the eyes to see that liberty is far more important to to the preservation of democracy than safety is. The reason for this is that liberty is essential for power distribution in society: reduce it and power starts to accumulate in government and corporations. So abandoning liberty for safety, as is happening is most democratic nations today, particularly the United States, is a sure-fire means to destroy democracy.
Privacy is central to liberty because it is one of the primary antidotes to the accumulation of power. An electorate left free to its own devices has the confidence to form its own opinions and to make voting choices in its favour. But destroy that privacy in the name of safety and the electorate starts to feel bullied into supporting party lines, especially if opinions critical of government policy are labeled traitorous and unpatriotic. A situation then develops whereby the people start fearing dissent and protest, and as these are central pillars of democracy, before long, as we have experienced, the core of our democracy imperceptibly morphs into an oligarchy, so that only the glitzy "land of the free" sugar coating is left.
If the majority insist on surveillance for safety, then only way to preserve democracy is if that whole process of surveillance is entirely transparent regarding exactly what data is being collected, who is collecting it and who has access to it, how it is being analysed and stored, and how long before it is deleted. This way, the public chooses its own level of privacy and controls its own surveillance, and the final deletion is very important. But when surveillance is undertaken in secret, by organisations that are not accountable to the general public, then that type of surveillance erodes the very fabric of democracy because it concentrates power into the hands of those secretly monitoring society. And whilst we might naively believe that a secret service is essential for our protection, history bears testimony to the fact that secret services always end up abusing their power and carrying out rogue operations. The safety of modern democracy lies in transparency, not secrecy.
Greater transparency would mean that we would face up to the blow-back from our often murderous foreign policies, blow-back that our governments and the media have deliberately presented to us as unrelated "terrorism". America seems particularly fearful of terrorist attack because its media is one of the most distortive, and its foreign policy the most harmful. As William Blum wrote: "The American people are like the children of a mafia boss who don't know what their father does for a living and wonder why it is that the odd petrol bomb is lobbed through the front window of their home."
Stopping the assault of the "odd petrol bomb" can only be achieved by facing up, in full transparency, to the fact that our governments are not "the good guys" but are directly responsible for terrible acts of terrorism, mostly in other parts of the world. If we want safety, we need to stop our governments' own brutal meddling in other countries; our safety depends on the safety of people in other countries we mostly don't care about.
But the evils of government never stay safely out of sight in developing countries. Violent foreign policies do not just come home to roost as blow-back, but as a change in behaviour of our governments to their own people. If one prepared to abandon humanity and use unethical and violent means to further political interests in other countries, it does not take long for that pathological mindset to turn its attention closer to home. Governments start to systematically instill fear and suspicion in their own people as a means of maintaining authority. In other words, the people become the enemy of pseudo-democratic tyrannical governments because the people are what stands in its objective of open absolute power.
This is why governments spy on their electorate: for the electorate is always a threat to governmental authority, not only because they may be able to vote, but primarily because people outnumber the government and the corporate elite. The people are the so-called 99%, and governmental policy is favouring the elite 1%. As awareness of this disparity builds via alternative media sources, the 1% is scrambling to find ways to discourage this awakening using a campaign of scaremongering, propaganda, distraction and censorship. And if all else fails, there is always the trump card that can be played — the declaration of martial law (all in the name of public "safety" of course!).
This is why it is so important to insist on privacy even if you have absolutely nothing to hide: privacy for the individual is vital for psychological and societal health. But this importance of privacy does not extend to corporations, governments and other organisations because it only allows them to consolidate power. So beyond the individual, transparency is what is required for a healthy society. This is why activists tend to push for individual privacy and government/corporate transparency. The big problem is that corporations, through their influence over government, have managed to gain the same legal rights afforded to individual human beings, and this has allowed them to further consolidate power and hide illegal and immoral conduct behind privacy laws.
Privacy, therefore, is not something we can sacrifice for safety because our safety is actually based on our privacy. To lose privacy is to lose safety. But to see the link between privacy and safety unfortunately requires a little intelligence, which is why so many people are quite happy not to resist government power-grabs in the name of safety. This is just lunacy and it can only end in tears for everyone involved.
So the next time you hear someone parroting the phrase "nothing to fear, nothing to hide" remember that this is spoken out of ignorance and that privacy is a central component to free democracy. Lose our privacy and we lose our democracy. It is as simple as that. And whilst the public loss of privacy may be in the interests of those that try to control us and profit from us, this lose of privacy that we are now witnessing is one of the greatest dangers for things ordinary people. If we do not reject the mass surveillance that has become the hallmark of many nations around the world and which is sold on the idea of "public safety", we will find ourselves soon enough living "safely" and "securely" in an Orwellian nightmare. The choice is ours.