It irks me when people say that data protection doesn’t affect them because they ‘haven’t done anything wrong.’ I know lots of people that think like this, and perhaps you are one of them, but let me attempt to convince you why looking after your data is important regardless of whether you consider yourself a nefarious type or not.
These people claim that because there’s nothing in their internet activity, emails or phone calls that they’re particularly embarrassed about, they do not see the problem with dragnet-style mass data collection. Though I sympathise with the fact that some people genuinely do feel they have nothing to hide or believe that the state should have as much power as it can obtain in order to protect us from terrorism, the suggestion that data protection is irrelevant to them because they haven’t done anything wrong is to misinterpret the issue with data protection.
The issue with data protection is not (or at least, isn’t supposed to be) a tool with which to hide ones wrongdoings and offenses, or to provide a barrier within which criminal-types can hide, but to provide people with a protected space in which to think and express what they want without the fear of intrusion. This obviously does apply to everybody, because everyone does, presumably, want to be able to express what they want, without fear of future repercussions of what their words might mean for them, or without instant judgement.
People have a powerful psychological need for their own private, personal space where they feel they can’t be ‘got to.’ Most people tend to enjoy the fact that their overbearing boss, nosy colleagues or any other person that they would wish to get space from cannot get into their home without them permitting them to. It is even true that those who claim privacy has no bearing on them actually do have a genuine need for privacy. For instance, if these people don’t need privacy, why do they have locks on their bedrooms? Why do people close the door when they use the bathroom? Why do they use passwords on their computers and emails? The need for privacy also becomes apparent when events occur that deprive us of it.
It is often said that the worst part of being burgled is not deprivation of your valuables, (though this can obviously be a huge part of it) but the sense that your privacy has been irrevocably and irreversibly violated. I can attest to this personally. It is a profoundly mind-rattling to return to your house to find your front door has been barricaded and all your most cherished belongings strewn all over the floor. The fact that some people don’t realise that online privacy is simply an extension of the need for privacy that everyone feels on a day-to-day basis is because this kind of intrusion is a lot more insidious and harder to spot.
Most people aren’t even aware of the myriad ways that ISPs, tech giants and government agencies spy on our online behaviour. As well as collecting metadata about online activity and phone calls, (the time and location of a phone call or email) agencies are able to access real data (internet searches, history) through programs like TEMPORA that directly tap internet users’ personal data. Apart from that, online trackers used by advertising agencies build up long-term profiles of your browser activity and, if you navigate to a social networking profiles like Facebook or Linkedin, can even collect pieces of information that personally identify you. Some IMSI Catchers, which are “fake” mobile towers that act as middle men between targeted mobile phones and the service provider’s real towers, can even intercept calls and SMS. The question arises, if you knew these organisations were viewing and tracking your behaviour in this manner, would you behave the same way?
It is a well-documented that people behave differently in public than they do in private. As made famous by the ‘Pan-opticon’ of political theorist Michel Foucault, and countless other scientific studies like the ‘Hawthorne Factory experiment,’ it has been shown that people behave differently when they know they are being observed, especially if they aren’t sure or if they’re being observed at any given time. So what are the potential effects of people reading about spying programs being operated on them? Most worryingly, self-censorship.
This effect is particularly pronounced when looking at writers; a study by PEN International found that US writers are increasingly restricting their own search terms and topics of conversation, with 16% deliberately avoiding speaking or writing about certain topics, and 24% avoiding certain terms and topics in phone conversation. And this makes sense, because we don’t know how what we write about ourselves will affect us in the coming years and decades, as we don’t know what laws they’re going to be in the future, as well as what kind of government authority will enact those laws. So it makes sense to be cautious about what you write.
But this kind of self-censorship is the antithesis to online democracy, and filters down to everyone. It stops people from being authentic and expressing how they feel, despite being law-abiding citizens. So although some people pretend to be above the effect of the Panopticon’s omnipresent gaze, it affects them too, whether they acknowledge it or not.