The Lives of Others

"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know," Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently told Maria Bartiromo, "maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

That might seem to makes sense. After all, what does someone who has done nothing wrong have to fear? But there may be a lot of things we wouldn't want others to know, but nevertheless have every right to do. Some things are none of anyone's business—like who we sleep with and what we read—and we shouldn't have to explain them to others. Privacy gives us a space free from social pressure, as well as protects us from those who would stalk and harass us. As Schmidt should know. In 2005, in order to make a point, CNET published details about where Schmidt lived, how much he made, what he did in his spare time, and which politicians he supported—which apparently bothered him enough that he decided to blacklist CNET's reporters. As Bruce Schneier writes, "if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness."


As we live more of our lives online—and as doing any kind of business requires sharing vast quantities of our personal information with others—the question of whether our personal information should be public and how it should be used becomes increasingly important. And it's not just a matter of personal privacy. The ability to monitor our private behavior is a powerful tool in the hands of governments. After September 11, The Patriot Act and the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists gave the government substantially broader powers to monitor the American population. In 2002, the Bush administration embarked on a massive program to collect information about American citizens and began secretly monitoring the phone conversations and e-mails of large numbers of us without obtaining the warrants required by law. In spite of bad publicity, these programs continue, with the National Security Agency (NSA) now building a $2 billion database in the Utah desert to house and analyze the minute details of our online data trail.

The danger is that the information can be just as easily used for political purposes as for catching criminals or stopping terrorists. And without strong safeguards it inevitably is. Politicians can too easily come to see their political opponents as enemies of the state. J. Edgar Hoover famously had the FBI eavesdrop on the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and when it found no evidence of any crime tried to use the tapes to blackmail King into dropping out of the civil rights movement. The power to monitor its citizens in this way is precisely what makes police states possible, which, like Schmidt, always insist that if people have nothing to hide they have nothing to fear. And now information technology potentially gives governments more power to monitor—and ultimately to control—our behavior than ever before.

So we shouldn't blithely dismiss privacy concerns the way Schmidt does. Google's ability to index massive amounts of information has transformed the way we live and work, largely for the better. But such a powerful tool has the potential to be misused. If Google really doesn't want to be evil—as it's so fond of saying—it needs to be sensitive to our right to live at least some of our lives in private.

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Why Lil Dicky made this star-studded Earth Day music video

"Earth" features about 30 of the biggest names in entertainment.

Culture & Religion
  • Lil Dicky is a rapper and comedian who released his debut album in 2015.
  • His new music video, "Earth," features artists such as Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Ed Sheehan, Kevin Hart, and Leonardo DiCaprio.
  • All proceeds of the music video will go to environmental causes, Dicky said.
Keep reading Show less

After death, you’re aware that you’ve died, say scientists

Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.

Credit: Petr Kratochvil. PublicDomainPictures.net.
Surprising Science

Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?

Keep reading Show less

Behold, the face of a Neolithic dog

He was a very good boy.

Image source: Historic Environment Scotland
Surprising Science
  • A forensic artist in Scotland has made a hyper realistic model of an ancient dog.
  • It was based on the skull of a dog dug up in Orkney, Scotland, which lived and died 4,000 years ago.
  • The model gives us a glimpse of some of the first dogs humans befriended.
Keep reading Show less