what have we got to hide? I’ll tell you

While I can’t say that I’m surprised at the recent revelation of the handing over of millions of telephone-call records to the U.S. government by Verizon (and no doubt other operators), for some reason it has stirred fresh anger in me.

I’m a Canadian citizen, which actually means that I’m probably at even higher risk of having my telecommunication activities recorded and stored by the American feds, since their ostensible target is foreign calls. Not only that, but we know that our own federal government is eager to gather such information about its citizens’ online activities (Vic Toews and his obstreperous promotion of Bill C30). No doubt it is doing so through one means or another. In a digital world, with information storage growing ever more abundant and cheap, the state will find ways to lay its hands on my data. And because the pretext for doing so is “security”, it will do it secretly—as the Verizon phone records were being transferred secretly until Edward Snowden blew the whistle.

So what’s my problem? Do I “have something to hide”?

This is the phrase used by those who seek to rationalize the secret, involuntary recording of citizens’ behavior by the state. Jonathan Kay wrote a good piece about this yesterday for The National Post, but I wanted to add some thoughts of my own.

When we hide something we are putting it out of sight, concealing it from view so that it cannot be seen or found. It is an act of secrecy. But secrecy and privacy are not the same thing; in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary there is a list of synonyms of the word secret and private does not appear on this list. Under private the dictionary gives these definitions:

1a: intended for or restricted to the use of a particular person, group, or class; b: belonging or concerning an individual person, company, or interest; 3a: withdrawn from company or observation: sequestered

I believe the most relevant definition here is “restricted to the use of a particular person.” I am the proprietor of information about me and my actions; it is private. It should go only to those with whom I voluntarily share it. Those who take it without my consent, and especially those who take it without my knowledge, are invading my privacy.

But why do I care? The government represents me. They’re trying to protect me. They wouldn’t do anything to harm me. They do what they do for my own good and for the good of my country. Why obstruct the efforts of those who only want to help me?

My first thought here is that it’s an instance of what Mortimer J. Adler calls the “angelistic fallacy”: the attribution of angelic qualities to men. If governments were run by angels and not by men, then I would have much less cause to insist on my privacy, since angels are by their nature interested only in my good and incapable of doing wrong. My private information would be safe with them.

But governments are composed of human beings, whose motives and actions are almost always conflicted. As Peter Barnes notes in his book Capitalism 3.0, which I recently reviewed, it’s not clear who the constituents of a politician are. The voters in his district? Lobbyists? His corporate campaign donors? His party? His country? His conscience? All of these no doubt play a part, but it’s anyone’s guess how that interior tug-of-war will play out in any given instance. My government’s assurances that they act only in my interest amount to a vision statement—but to nothing more than that.

But even supposing that the government is sincerely concerned with the national good, as it understands that phrase, that doesn’t mean that the government is concerned with my good. Omar Khadr is a Canadian citizen, and his government allowed him to languish in Guantanamo Bay for 8 years without charge. Indeed, “his” government resisted the urgings of his own American military counsel to repatriate him. Was Omar Khadr’s private data safe with the government?

Jonathan Kay’s piece quoted these chilling words of John Ashcroft, the U.S. Attorney-General at the time of 9/11:

To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends.

America’s enemies. Who are they, exactly? Adversaries in declared wars? Of those there are none. No, America’s enemies are those designated as enemies by the regime. And by what criteria do they designate those enemies? By their own criteria. Ashcroft’s reference to “those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty” might make one such criterion: the enemy within. The enemy of the state. He looks like you and me. You’ll only know him by the fact that he criticizes the regime and its policies. But don’t worry: we can find him. He’s left traces of his actions. We can find him and put him away where he won’t hurt anyone.

That’s the real reason that your private information belongs only to you, and why you have an inalienable right to decide who has access to it.

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