Privacy, secrecy and surveillance on deck at Bard conference

Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?"
Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?"

Floating what he called a test case, New York University School of Law Professor Jeremy Waldron led a thought-provoking talk on privacy, secrecy and surveillance at the “Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?” conference held by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.

Focusing primarily on the surveillance of religious groups, specifically Muslims in Europe and the United States, Waldron noted a difference between secrecy and privacy, indicating the need to reduce the former, but to protect the latter.

Both the group or person under surveillance and the watchers may have reason to favor secrecy—the targets wanting to hide their activities so they're not discovered, while the watchers fear the “obliquity of disclosing things.” In addition, “if secret surveillance is disclosed they have to account for their actions,” he said, pointing to some of the revelations that came from Edward Snowden's exposure of U.S. spying.

“There's also the potential that [those being watched] will find out how they're being watched and will turn to other” avenues and media, Waldron said, noting that that's what's prompted some of the outcry against Snowden.

Snowden is set to take the stage at the conference, via satellite, later in the day.

The NYU law professor and privacy advocate underscored that surveillance itself isn't always wrong, but rather that “the secret of surveillance is wrong.”

Open surveillance—such as uniformed police on the street, cameras on the streets of London and FBI agents attending religious services open to the public—“is  another thing altogether,” he said, though it can still have an effect on the way individuals or groups behave and privacy is not completely immune to it.

Waldron encouraged the audience at the privacy conference to consider whether there is “a threat to privacy in this sort of open surveillance” and consider “what would be reasonable surveillance” in society.

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