While there increasingly seems to be a war on privacy, with the National Security Agency (NSA) spying on American citizens both domestically and abroad and big data providing endless information on consumers to corporations, in actuality, society might enjoy a greater degree of privacy now than ever before.
Roger Berkowitz, the academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, kicked off the center's annual conference themed “Why Does Privacy Matter?” on Thursday with that assertion.
“There's maybe more privacy than ever,” he said, citing single family dwellings as one example. “Our entire architectural system is in many ways designed to keep us out of the public and into the private.”
Cars, as society's primary transportation system, are also intrinsically private, he said, adding, “We're using tech to improve ourselves, to create better halves for ourselves, to teach ourselves, to better what we do, but our private lives are being invaded in every moment."
But, he added, “technology is not the only thing taking away privacy, but it's a unique challenge.”
Berkowitz said the primary reasons people will eschew privacy, include because privacy's perceived as dangerous, anti-democratic, and/or inconvenient.
The mantra of “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to lose” is often applied to justify giving up privacy. Only terrorists or pedophiles would have something to keep secret, some argue, but in reality, “everybody has something to hide and thus something to lose," he said, countering that justification.
Perhaps not everyone views privacy as being anti-democratic, but for those who do, they point to the necessity of constantly monitoring public figures. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's private email server controversy is an example of backlash when it is perceived that a government official attempted to keep communications on lockdown. Ultimately, Berkowitz said, everyone says things that they'd rather not have made public.
And, people are often willing to sacrifice privacy for convenience, Berkowitz said, pointing to the Internet of Things (IoT) as an example. A refrigerator being able to identify and order milk when the currently stocked jug is empty is convenient, for sure, but it could also be a breach of privacy.
The day's talks aimed to answer why society should value privacy and perhaps think again about so readily giving up seemingly inane information.
From Berkowitz's perspective, privacy protects life and enables judgment, he said.