This paper will summarize and give opinion based reactions to the TED Talks video by Glenn Greenwald titled Why privacy matters. The talk is based around why privacy is important, and examines revelations by whistle blower Edward Snowden and comments by CEO’s of large internet based companies and the impact surveillance can have on privacy and people’s actions in general.
Keywords: Privacy, Glenn Grinwald, TED Talks
Summary and Perspective on Why privacy matters
Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) talks are short talks designed to spread free thinking ideas. The typical format is in a conference where a presenter talks about a concept or issue in a short, but informative manner. The time limit imposed is 18 minutes or less, with a few minutes for questions and observations by the moderator. The TED talks piece I choose is titled Why privacy matters which was recorded at the 2014 TEDGlobal in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
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Glenn Greenwald opens the dialog by describing an entire genre of YouTube videos which include individuals expressing behavior under the assumption no one can see it. He points to a few example activities dancing, singing, etc. Then the moment hits, when the actor realizes they are not alone and someone is watching. I like every other human being has experienced this at some point or another. Whether it is getting caught signing in the shower when you thought no one else was home, or something as Glenn describes that was caught on video and posted to the internet. Human beings by nature will behave differently depending on the presence of others, as well as the surrounding environment. In these examples the outcome is a minor amount of embarrassment for the person who expressed themselves as if no one was watching.
Glenn goes on to further identify how global government entities have, “…converted the Internet, once heralded as an unprecedented tool of liberation and democratization, into an unprecedendented zone of mass, indiscriminate surveillance.”. He supports this argument referencing the leaked reports by government whistle blower Edward Snowden. I agree with his characterization of the current state of the internet. After the devastating attacks of September 11, the sitting president at the time George W. Bush signed into law the USA PATRIOT act. This law to protect American lives, allowed the current state of the internet and government intrusion into digital communication.
He goes on the identify a world view taken on by many people. The good people and the bad people. He likens the bad people to terrorists such as the ones who hijacked planes and decimated thousands of lives on that fateful September day. The good people as being the mother who surfs the web looking for new recipes, or the father who uses the internet to research a family outing. I can identify with this feeling as before watching this TED talk I was one of these people. I thought to myself my online activity contains no nefarious intent, I have nothing to hide, and no reason to fear some government analyst reviewing my google searches or internet postings. This is also based on my own assumption that viewing any of my related activities would be nothing more than a waste of government time, and with all the “bad” people out there they must have more valuable targets to asses. This is the sort of thinking that has been impressed on us by those who have instituted these controls.
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Glenn goes on to point out that even the naysayers who proclaim they don’t value privacy. Often, act in a way that contrary to these words. One example is the CEO of Google who was quoted in a 2009 interview as saying, “If you’re doing something that you don’t want other people to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Eric later showed how his privacy was important when a CNET article titled Google balances privacy, reach was published in 2005 which resulted in a companywide directive to no longer communicate with the internet magazine. This shows me that I am not alone in my feelings about privacy, when I think about digital privacy I use the lens of not looking at my privacy but another person’s. Once it is your own privacy being invaded, the action taken may not be in line with your previous statement of I have nothing to hide and don’t care.
A great point Greenwald goes on to make is to people such as myself who take this stance. When he gives people an email address, and asks them to send him all their authentication information for both work and personal email addresses. So, he may, “…just troll through what it is you’re doing online, read what it is you’re doing online, read what I want to read and publish whatever I find interesting. After all, if you’re not a bad person, if you’re doing nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide.” This statement really hit me because looking at my own life, I do consider myself to not be bad person or having anything to hide but the feeling of willingly letting someone else go through my personal correspondences leaves a sinking feeling in my stomach. Looking back at my own email accounts and they contain personal communications between myself and my wife and other family. Additionally, I have even found notes to myself, which include reminders or places I need to go on my ride home from work. Although this information to me is not bad in nature, who knows if what I wrote could be flagged by some government agency as a “thought crime”. Could an inside joke made between me and my wife be construed as something else? Quite possibly it could open the door for more scrutiny on my online activities which stretches to my family, loved ones, friends, and casual acquaintances.
Every human has some form of a secret, the secret inherently isn’t something that is bad or destructive in nature. Glenn makes a good point, of stating that there are just certain things like views on specific topics, religion, or anything in that matter that people would rather keep private. He goes on the examine how the overtone of constantly being watched can hinder the way a person behaves. To add credence to this point, he brings up the 18th century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham instituted an architectural design known as the panopticon. The panopticon is a building design that allows for viewing of individuals, but the individuals do not know if they are truly being watched. In this case the individuals being observed have the knowledge that they could be observed at any point. This institutes as Bentham himself described it as, “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”. What he was saying that the mere knowledge of the individuals that they could at any given time be being observed help curve their behavior to be in line with the institution’s rules.
Glenn goes on to describe how this reasoning has been a common place theme in society for much of recorded history. He observes that this power of mind over mind has been used similarly by the Abrahamic religions. He says that they employ this method using, “an invisible, all-knowing authority who, because of its omniscience, always watches whatever you’re doing, which means you never have a private moment, the ultimate enforcer for obedience to its dictates.” The main difference I would argue, is the Abrahamic religions use a base moral system, and the all-knowing being is one which followers of these religions believe to be a higher power. One that is above reproach when it comes to ethics, morals, and the like. There is a difference between an all-knowing being, and a government entity ran by other human beings.
The last points he makes are about the overall realm of privacy and the mindset that comes with the lack of privacy. He explains, that the argument made by proponents of privacy is that only those who are doing something wrong need to be worried about privacy. Looking through the lens of right and wrong is different from your point of view. For instance, in some places you can be put to death for doing some heinous act. In others, the people believe that murder is murder and that all killing is wrong regardless of what act has been committed. The idea that anyone seeking privacy is doing something bad doesn’t quite work with the current world. It takes a black and white approach to an issue which deserves to be observed in shades of grey. Glenn points out that to a normal citizen something bad may be a terrorist attack, but to a government agency something bad could be expressing an idea that conflicts with those in powers. Even though we have the right to freedom of speech, and express our own ideas our own actions could be altered because of the surveillance currently being used. Looking back in history, how would women activists or those fighting for civil rights been viewed by those in power at their times. What sort of additional hurdles would have this sort of surveillance caused to those people? No one can know the answers for sure, but it is something to ponder.
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