Explaining the need for privacy

Tags: musings

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John Oliver recently explained the need for privacy in his great show Last Week Tonight by using a rather NSFW example, namely his private parts. There is even a new website about this very issue. I love the internet.

However, I am not entirely satisfied with the reason for privacy. Taking and sending pictures of your junk is a deliberate action of your part. Eric Schmidt had the following to say about this:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

This is certainly not completely wrong—and this is precisely the reason why I dislike the example used by John Oliver. Let me explain: In German, we have two words for privacy. We have Intimsphäre, which pertains to things that are “intimate”, e.g. your junk. We also have the word Privatsphäre, which pertains to things that are (merely) private. In my opinion, it is a bad idea to reduce the problem with surveillance to the most intimate of things! Of course, most people would not like the government to make copies of their nude pictures or whatever. That is beside the point. I even resent governments or anyone snooping in things that are clearly private.

A more useful example is the current state of my apartment. When I am having people over, I clean everything to make sure that no discarded clothes, papers, or anything messy is around. When I am on my own, books start to occupy all surfaces over time. This is not something I need to hide, but I would still be embarassed if I am having a visitor and the apartment is not cleaned. Now imagine the government being able to look over your daily affairs, with all the social make-up removed. All your journal entries, e-mails to loved ones (with or without pictures of private parts), comments on social networks, and so on. This is the real issue with (government) surveillance. We must not let the NSA and others take over our Privatsphäre and fall back to our Intimsphäre. They need to be kept out of both!

(I wrote this as a result of a very intriguing coffee-break discussion with friends and colleagues. Thank you for the insights)