Last Wednesday’s Sun ran a delightfully dismissive piece by Jane Moore on the NSA PRISM scandal, the tone of which can essentially be summed up as as “someone tell the nerds and hippies not to get their mouse cords in a twist”. Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion – in mine, Jane Moore’s take on the issue proves that old adage about opinions and assholes: everyone’s got one; everyone else’s stinks.
First, a quick primer: in an era of increasingly-compromised privacy this is by far one of the greatest infringements of personal privacy The West has seen. From an enormous and never-ending torrent of data originating from their own network and from global companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, and others, NSA analysts can pluck out information on specific individuals with just a handful of search terms – including UK citizens. Furthermore, the initial leak claimed that the NSA was passing on information to GCHQ, our very own electronic eavesdropping and data-gathering initiative – which legally cannot collect information on UK citizens en masse. That just raises all manner of interesting questions: what information did the GCHQ receive, and did it pertain to UK or foreign citizens? What did they offer in return? Was our government aware of the sheer scale of information being gathered on UK citizens, or will they attempt to plead ignorance – considering they can’t deny knowledge of the program itself?
Now, perhaps you do feel a certain amount of surveillance is necessary – certainly the NSA analysts reading this as I type do. I don’t pretend to have a full grasp of the factors that fed into the decision to transform the NSA into the All-Seeing Eye of The State, and I’d concede a degree of surveillance would be tolerable, if it could be proven to be necessary and effective (proven to the public, I mean, not a secret jury). But let’s be clear on one thing: we should not be starting from a point of constant and pervasive surveillance and discussing how far we can afford to scale it back, we should be starting from a point of no surveillance and asking how far it’s necessary to impinge on our right to individual privacy.
Because privacy isn’t about what you have to hide, it’s about what you choose to disclose; everybody values privacy in at least some aspect of their life, and anyone who says otherwise is gravely mistaken or outright lying. I’m happy, for example, to tell my friends my PIN code. I’m happy to tell you that on a weekend away in college I went out wearing a mini-skirt and stripper heels one night, and an old lady’s floral-print dress the next. I enjoyed the experience so much I’ve been looking for an excuse to do it again for a while now, in fact, but that’s getting away from my point. I will not tell you about my first break-up, though, or the first time I had sex. There are other things I won’t even tell you I’m unwilling to discuss, because simply acknowledging I don’t want to talk about them is telling in and of itself.
There is also the problematic little fact that we weren’t even informed we were being watched. The houses on the street I grew up on are built in such a way that the bedrooms at the back command a glorious view of next door’s back garden. Fine – it’s not an issue because I am aware of this, and so don’t do anything in the back garden I wouldn’t want the neighbours seeing. It’s the same reason most people don’t drop their trousers in the middle of the road and instead wait ’til they’re behind closed doors to take a sh*t, and would feel violated to discover there were hidden cameras installed in the cubicle.
Perhaps there’s also a generational divide at play here. My mother isn’t particularly concerned with the revelations, partly out of quiet and ingrained cynicism, and partly because she’s not on Facebook, wouldn’t know Myspace from your space, and thinks a Bebo might be a bit like a Tamagotchi. If you mention Microsoft and Apple in the same sentence there’s a chance she’ll realise the conversation hasn’t suddenly veered to fruit, but it’s slim. A great deal of our lives are now orchestrated via the internet, though, and it’s not until you try to quit something like Facebook that you realise how suddenly inconvenient it can be to keep track of Society events or the latest Uni news, for example. Each successive generation is placing more and more implicit trust in the internet – increasingly, kids are turning to the internet for answers and support on sex and sexuality, on mental health issues, on the trouble they have fitting in at school or making friends, and that trust has been violated with all the chill efficiency of a rectal exam.
So do not make the mistake of thinking that because some aspects of a person’s life are an open book, every aspect is, or that a desire for privacy is unreasonable or suspicious. I’m not concerned that a handful of drunk Facebook messages might implicate me in a terrorist plot, I’m concerned because those messages were private, and I did not choose to disclose them. I do not for a second believe there is a single thinking person who doesn’t have even one embarrassing moment or secret shame they’d rather forget, but I invite anyone who disagrees to prove me wrong.