Does Wanting Privacy Make You Evil?

Posted Tuesday, December 8th, 2009 at 4:37 pm

According to Google CEO Eric Schmidt: “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 the same stupid excuse we always hear from people who want to invade everyone’s privacy, and I’m sick of it.

Incidentally, we need a good term for the privacy invaders. Folks like the EFF, EPIC’s Marc Rotenberg, Philip Zimmermann and so on get rightly called “privacy activists”. What should we call the people who make the bogus claim that privacy is a sign of guilt, and is something you should give up to prove your purity?

Funny how those folks never seem to want to give up their own privacy, isn’t it? The “If you’re innocent, then you have nothing to hide” brigade never seem to want their own private lives examined. If only someone could have looked into J. Edgar Hoover’s private life… And Eric Schmidt? When c|net published some public information about his salary, neighborhood, hobbies and political donations — all of which it obtained through Google searches — Schmidt was so incensed, he ordered his entire company to stop speaking to c|net for a year.

Eric Schmidt considers his own privacy to be of paramount importance. Yours? He thinks it’s dirty. Shameful. He could have said that if you don’t want someone to know something “you shouldn’t post it on the Internet”. That might have made sense. (Personally, my rule has always been “don’t post it on the Internet without password-protecting it” — sometimes, there are things you want to share with just a few people, and the Internet is the best means ever for sharing information.)

But instead, he says that “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” There is no middle ground between utterly public and unethical or immoral behavior that you “shouldn’t be doing” at all.

This, quite frankly, is the same “if you’re innocent, you’ve got nothing to hide… right?!” bullshit we’ve been hearing from far too many quarters for far too long. And it is, most definitely and absolutely, bullshit. Consider that by Schmidt’s standard:

  • If you are making love to your spouse, hoping to have children, and you don’t want someone peering in the window? You “shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”.
  • If you’re taking a shower, and you don’t want someone poking a camera in past the shower curtain to record you lathering up your armpits? Hey, maybe you shouldn’t be doing that. Shame on you!
  • If you’re getting a happy surprise ready for a friend, and you don’t want the friend (or that gossipy mutual acquaintance who just can’t keep a secret) to see you shopping for supplies — you must be up to no good, you sneaky rascal!
  • When you wake up in the morning and stumble into the bathroom to brush your teeth, with your hair pointing in 15 different directions and your breath capable of overwhelming someone an arm’s length away, you’d better be ready to let the J. Edgar Hoover types into your bathroom or be branded a criminal. Hey, I’m not proud of moments like this, either, but there’s a big difference between “not at my best” and “has something to hide”.
  • And how about when I’m whispering things like “snookums” and “honey-bunch” into my sweetheart’s ear? Those are private moments too — and there’s nothing shameful about them! But they’re still private. They’re for me and her alone.

I don’t believe that Eric Schmidt really thinks “maybe [I] shouldn’t be doing [that] in the first place.” I think he’s desperately trying to scare people into allowing yet another invasion of our privacy.

And I don’t think we should stand for it. The assertion that “if you want to retain any privacy, you must be guilty of something” is a foul, pernicious lie, and we need to fight it wherever it crops up. It’s been cropping up far too often lately.

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