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Published 30th November 2013 by

Privacy Matters. It's a hot topic at the moment with the Edward Snowdon leaks, conspiracy after conspiracy over mass government surveillance in the name of freedom. Apparently, if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear, but what does privacy mean to you?
Internet Security 101 Series
  1. Introduction to Hacking
  2. History of Cryptography
  3. Online Privacy And Why It Matters
  4. Supercookies: The Web's Latest Tracking Device
  5. Ultimate Guide to SSL for the Newbie
  6. How Internet Security and SSL Works to Secure the Internet
  7. Man in the Middle Hacking and Transport Layer Protection
  8. Social Engineering
  9. Cookie Security and Session Hijacking
  10. What is Cross Site Scripting? (XSS)
  11. What is Internal Implementation Disclosure?
  12. Parameter Tampering and How to Protect Against It
  13. What are SQL Injection Attacks?
  14. Protection Against Cross Site Attacks

Does online privacy matter? What is online privacy? To many, online privacy means to be able to do something without the judgement, shame or humiliation from others. It could be wild singing, dancing in underwear or something else. The thought of someone else watching or finding out mortifies them. It's a case of "This is something I'm willing to do only if no one else is watching."

In the midst of all the revelations from Edward Snowden that the United States and its partners, unknown to the entire world, have converted the Internet, once heralded as a place where freedom of speech has free reign, into an unprecedented zone of mass indiscriminate surveillance.

Most people take the view that there is no real harm that comes from this large-scale mass invasion of privacy because only people who are engaged in bad acts have a reason to want to hide and to care about their privacy.

This view is grounded in the proposition that there are two kinds of people in the world, good people and bad people. Bad people are those who plot terrorist attacks or who engage in violent criminality and therefore have reasons to want to hide what they're doing, they have reasons to care about their privacy.

Good people, on the other hand, are people who go to work, get married, have some kids, pay your taxes, pay your bills, watch your TV, follow fashion. They use the Internet not to plot bombing attacks but to read the news, exchange recipes, do the grocery shopping, act normal, obey the law and those people are doing nothing wrong and therefore have nothing to hide and no reason to fear the government monitoring them.

These people are actually engaged in a very extreme act of self-deprecation. They have agreed that they will make themselves as harmless, as unthreatening and as uninteresting as they can so that they don't have to fear the government knowing what they are doing.

The mentality is highlighted in this clear quote from Eric Schmidt from Google.

If you're doing something that you don't want other people to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.Eric Schmidt - CEO of Google

There are a number of things wrong with this mentality. First of which is that the people who think like that privacy isn't important, don't actually believe it. They take all kinds of actions to protect their privacy. They put passwords on their email and social media accounts. They close the curtains to stop people looking in. They probably even close the bathroom door; maybe even lock it as well. These are all steps designed to prevent other people from entering what they consider to be their private place.

As human beings, we are social creatures. That means we have a need for other people to know what we're doing, saying and thinking. This is why we voluntarily publish information about ourselves online. Equally essential to what it means to be a free and fulfilled human being, we need to have a place that we can go to and be free of the judgmental eyes of other people.

There are all sorts of things that we think and do that we're willing to tell our doctor, lawyer, psychologist, spouse or best friend that we would be horrified for the rest of the world to learn.

There is a reason why we need privacy and that is that when we're in a state where we can be monitored, where we can be watched, and our behaviour changes dramatically. Our range of behavioural options that we consider when we think we're being watched is severely reduced. This is just a fact of human nature that has been recognised in social science, literature, religion and in virtually every field of discipline.

Shame is a very powerful motivator, as is the desire to avoid it. It is the reason why people in a state of being watched, make decisions that are not the by-product of their own behaviour but are about the expectations that others have of them or the mandates of societal orthodoxy.

The Panopticon and Crowd Behaviour

In the late 18th century the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham conceived the concept of The Panopticon. The concept of the design is to allow all (pan-) inmates of an institution to be observed (-opticon) by a single watchman without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. The theory was that if the inmates didn't know if they were being watched, then at any given time they would have to assume that they were being watched. Studies have proven that when somebody knows that they might be watched, the behaviour they engage in is vastly more conformist and compliant.

Presidio Modelo prison, inside one of the buildings, 2005

Presidio Modelo prison, inside one of the buildings, 2005


In the 20th-century, French philosopher Michel Foucault realised that that model could be used not just for prisons but for every institution that seeks to control human behaviour - schools, hospitals, factories, workplaces. What he found was that the theory behind the Panopticon was the key means of societal control for modern, Western societies, which no longer need the overt weapons of tyranny - punishing or imprisoning or killing dissidents, or legally compelling loyalty to a particular party. This is because mass surveillance creates a prison in the mind that is much more subtle and a much more effective means of fostering compliance, more effective than brute force could ever be.

CCTV Camera

CCTV Camera

Mass surveillance doesn't have to be contained within a Panopticon. It takes the form of every town and city. Instead of a single watchman, dozens of agencies in every country around the world. If the leaks from Edward Snowdon have shown anything, it's that governments have the capability and desire to conduct mass surveillance on the population. They do this through the network of CCTV cameras, face recognition, number plate recognition on all the major roads, internet history storage, email monitoring, phone tapping, mobile phone eavesdropping.

Bought anything from Amazon recently? Have you noticed that a seemingly unrelated website is showing adverts for the product you bought, or very similar products? How did they know that?

So to everyone reading this who still believes they don't worry about invasion of privacy because they have nothing to hide, I ask you to do this. In the comments section below send me all of your email addresses, with full server names, login id, and password details. I am going to go through all your emails and when I find something interesting, I am going to publish and share it over social media.

After all, if you're not a bad person, if you're doing nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide.

Tutorial Series

This post is part of the series Internet Security 101. Use the links below to advance to the next tutorial in the couse, or go back and see the previous in the tutorial series.

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