Individual privacy has been at the forefront of debates for years with many across the globe constantly weighing the need for privacy against the need for governments to monitor what people are doing in order to prevent events of mass terror. With the rise in terror attacks in the past five years in particular, this discussion has become more critical than ever. The question that needs to be addressed is whether the protection of privacy and thus people’s rights to not have their lives monitored is worth the risks of allowing terrorism, violence and crime to continue to grow, and my view is that the protection of privacy is worthwhile to the extent that it does not impinge on the need for governments to protect the safety and welfare of their people.
The protection of privacy is worthwhile as a matter of principle, since it is the only thing that stands between an individual’s freedom of expression and living in a lifeless dystopian state. The protection of privacy is inextricably tied up with the protection of individual freedom, with the loss of privacy effectively meaning the loss of people’s rights to their lives, since every decision, choice and action taken from that point onwards would be monitored by the state. This effectively takes away people’s freedom to choose as every decision must be held to the standards of the law and the people monitoring them, creating an environment where people will never be free to act and behave like themselves. Examples of this sad reality have been described throughout popular culture although with added dramatization such as the dreary depiction of life in George Orwell’s renowned novel ‘1984’ and the movie based on the novel which depicts the dark dystopian future that could await people if they choose to forgo their right to privacy. By giving states control over individual’s privacy, we open the door for states to go further and demand the ability to control where individuals can go and control the skills and knowledge that everyone is allowed to learn. The trickle effects of relinquishing the right to privacy can be seen through dictatorial states such as North Korea where every aspect of everyone’s lives are controlled by the state: from the education system and what is taught to the state media and even the food that are available to most people to eat. We also see this in the People’s Republic of China, where the social credit system, initially meant to address the issue of ungraciousness and crime, has become a tool of mass surveillance and therefore of control. These are prime examples of what could follow should privacy be allowed to be taken away in the name of protection as governments and states might eventually be unsatisfied with just being able to monitor for potential threats, and would instead want the ability to prevent future threats from happening, something which can ultimately only be achieved by complete control of its populace in order to weed out criminal and radical ideological thinking. Thus, the protection of individual privacy is important as it would prevent the descent of democracies into police states as it would be the beginning of individual rights being sacrificed in order to address the issues of crime and terrorism, especially if the only way to do so is to completely control every aspect of people’s lives.
Why are individual freedoms desirable, then, or even worth protecting from the all-seeing eye of Big Brother? I venture to argue that individual freedoms, including the right to privacy and non-scrutiny, form the basis of happiness, which is presumably the ultimate goal of society. Even if individual freedoms are not explicitly curtailed by despotic regimes, but instead indirectly curtailed by sympathetic and paternalistic governments, this too might affect the happiness of individuals who otherwise might be able to live life in accordance with their own wishes. Contemporary philosopher Michel Foucault goes one step further in suggesting that the lack of privacy is directly connected to the loss of freedom and thus the loss of happiness through the concept of panopticism. Foucault suggests that external surveillance and the intrusion of privacy associated with this surveillance is ultimately internalised, and each person becomes his or her own guard. This greatly reduces people’s freedom of expression, and the happiness associated with that freedom of living according to their own wishes. A study published by the Applied Research in Quality of Life suggests that an increase in freedoms correlates with an increase in happiness. This understanding and desire presumably underpin historical struggles for freedom, from the ‘Baltic Way’, where more than two million people formed a human chain across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to protest the despotism of the Soviet Union, to the French Revolution, and to how “Wallace fought for Scotland, left the name of Wallace to be found, like a wild flower, all over his dear country”. This suggests that individual freedoms are worth fighting for, and as established earlier, the erosion of the right to privacy ultimately cumulates into the erosion of individual freedoms, and should thus be decried. The right to have a life that is private and non privy to the prying eyes of the state is thus essential despite the risks it entails as without privacy, individuals will not be able to live their lives the way the want and express their true selves, effectively destroying the uniqueness and imaginative joy that makes life worth living.
However, with the rising threat of crime and violence, the protection of privacy might not be as worthwhile as the need to protect people from acts of mass terror and violence may outweigh this. The ability to monitor individuals would allow states to better address the issues of rising crime and terror by giving them an avenue to better track individuals with a greater risk of being involved in criminal activities. States will also be able to set up alert systems to highlight any actions by individuals that could possibly lead to potentially damaging terrorist or criminal activity such as the planning of crimes of terror attacks by people within their borders. Allowing governments access to sensitive information would have allowed law enforcement agencies to prevent many of the attacks perpetrated by radicals and criminals such as the shooting at a mosque in Christchurch in March 2019 and the multiple school shootings that have taken place in America over the years. In fact, concerns about privacy have actively impeded pre-emptive measures and investigations. Former Federal Bureau of Investigation chief James Comey argued that encrypted messaging platforms, meant to safeguard the privacy of individual users, deprive governments and intelligence agencies of crucial information, “giving terrorists a tremendous advantage against us”. Letting go of the desire for privacy might be the necessary sacrifice that will allow governments to finally get a step ahead of these criminals and extremists as the individualised nature of international terrorism and crime today makes it harder and harder for defence agencies to track and protect us against these threats, which could come from anywhere, even from the people living right next door. Relinquishing the right to privacy might be the only way to allow states to properly address the ever changing and complex network of international crime and terror, and protect us from the many different threats that are brewing just under the surface of society.
The protection of privacy is furthermore not worthwhile, as it may prevent people and states from taking responsibility for the actions and being held accountable. While privacy is largely individual, it also extends to states when they are being scrutinised by other nations. Allowing both states and individuals to hide behind the shield of privacy allows people of power to basically go about doing whatever they please without fear of condemnation, if they have significant enough means to keep news of their actions contained. For example, countries such as China have long been using the argument of privacy and national sovereignty to prevent the international community from properly investigating accusations of human rights violations against Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang that have been made against them. The country has used its power in the international community and political red tape to assert that what happens within the country is a private Chinese matter that the international community has no business in. Examples such as this illustrate how the idea of privacy can be used in order to prevent entities from being held accountable for their actions, instead hiding behind privacy as a means of burying and news about their actions. Thus, the protection of privacy is not worthwhile when privacy is just used as a tool to conceal the actions of people and states from the outside world in order to shield themselves from having to deal with the eventual repercussions of these actions, and continue to carry out these atrocities without fear of condemnation due to the protection that privacy give them.
Overall, whether the protection of privacy is worthwhile depends heavily on the degree that our privacy would be taken away should we choose to stop defending it. Although the relaxing of privacy could have beneficial impacts to society by stopping people and countries from using it as a shield and be held accountable for their actions, and lead to states being more prepared and capable to address the threats that terrorism and crime have towards their communities, the complete relinquishment of privacy might in the long run lead to the loss of all individual freedoms and cause the countries of the world to descend into dystopian police states of our own making.