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
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