Nothing to hide, nothing to fear

6 March 2015, 00:00 UTC | New Zealand, United States of America
Concerns over mass surveillance in the world. © Beraldo Leal
By Grant Bayldon - Executive Director Amnesty International NZ

There’s a little-known paragraph in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that reads “No one shall be subject to arbitrary interference with his privacy”.

It sits within the Declaration – which all states must agree to uphold to join the United Nations – surrounded by other much better known and loved rights like: innocent until proven guilty; freedom of speech, religion and thought; and bans on slavery and torture.

Which at first may seem surprising, because the Declaration was drawn up in the ruined aftermath of the Second World War, in which those other rights had been trampled almost to the point of extinction.

Until you consider that at the time the ability to breach privacy on a mass-scale was the exclusive domain of totalitarian governments. And breach it they did – Hitler’s Germany encouraged neighbours to inform on neighbours in possibly the most brutal example.

Back at the time that democratic countries like Britain and New Zealand declared war on the fascist powers, common sayings like “a man’s house is his castle” and “I don’t agree with what you say but I’ll defend your right to say it” summed up well the mood that everyone should be free from arbitrary interference by governments. This was something they knew would disappear should the war be lost.

Recently, revelations of systematic mass surveillance by the governments of the very countries that fought so hard to establish this right have been constantly in the news. News of New Zealand’s mass spying on people in the Pacific is just the latest instalment. But there’s been little real political fallout – electoral heads have not rolled.

Which leads to the obvious question: is this a right that we care enough about to keep?

Most of us willingly gave away some privacy when we first started posting our lives on Facebook. So really, why would we be upset that our governments are doing the same thing, especially to keep us safe?

If there is a debate at all, it’s mostly been the democratic and ethical one: maybe this would have been alright if we’d been told about it – or even not been lied to about it – and been able to consider the practice when we voted.

So is this just a breach of trust, or is it also a breach of a more fundamental right?

The usual answer to this involves a scale. At one end we have privacy and at the other security, and any increase in one inevitably leads to a decrease of the other. Privacy or security – simply make up your mind which you care most about.

But this dialogue misses three very important points.

The first is around the extent to which this ‘privacy for security’ trade-off really exists. No one is seriously arguing that there isn’t a need for targeted surveillance, to do so would be naive. But the frequent historical lesson is that where states move beyond targeted and into mass surveillance, their people are actually not more but less secure. East Germany under Stasi surveillance is the obvious example; information is power and the urge to feed the surveillance machine with more and more of it can quickly get out of hand. Especially where there are no effective controls on what information government agents can scoop up – and few such controls have been in evidence lately.

Not only that, but the mere fact that a government has turned its considerable resources to collecting and packaging personal information makes it ripe for falling into other hands. Notice how easy it was for NSA consultant Edward Snowden to walk out with millions of records?

Secondly, we need to face the reality that even in democracies, governments are not always entirely benign. It’s not that long ago that New Zealand Prime Minister Muldoon was accused of using SIS surveillance powers against his political enemies. While data storage is cheap and information sticks around, governments change over time and New Zealand’s wafer-thin constitutional protections leave us all open to such abuses in future.

And of course we know that many of the governments New Zealand tactically aligns with are anything but benign. At Amnesty International we hold information to work for the release of prisoners of conscience around the world – people often persecuted simply for criticising those governments. It’s chilling to think just how far the international information sharing of digital data may go.

And thirdly, there is now a large amount of research on the importance of privacy to personality and creativity. Humans are social creatures, and the threat that anything we say or do could one day be held against us is a recipe for a bland world in which we always have conformity in the back of our minds – few of us are brave enough to risk being voted off the island.

It’s simply no longer possible to live off the grid. Every credit card purchase, every web page viewed, every phone call or email made, even our phone locations are all logged. We can’t turn back the tide on that technology, but it’s not unreasonable to demand that our governments don’t scoop that up and store it without a specific reason.

So the next time you post on Facebook, send an email, or even sing in public, remember that you are still exercising your right to privacy, because it’s you who is choosing whether to keep that to yourself or share it.

This may be the century where that little-known right to privacy becomes one of the most important ones. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who fought to establish that right, and we are right to question any government that takes it away.

An abridged version of this article was published in the New Zealand Herald.

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