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Why privacy matters

online privacy protection

"If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear" — we've all heard the sentence. Interestingly enough, this argument is fallacious. It implies that the desire to keep certain aspects of our lives private necessarily means we're covering up wrongdoing.

Of course, that's not true. Not handing our unlocked phone to the first who comes along doesn't make us criminals. There's a reason why we protect our privacy: it can be misused for surveillance, extortion, manipulation and worse. That's why curtains were invented. And things like banking secrecy, attorney-client privilege, secrecy of correspondence, secrecy of the ballot, confessional secret or medical confidentiality.

Privacy is a fundamental right

Privacy is enshrined as a fundamental human right by the United Nations Human Rights Council, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and a number of national and international treaties.

We need to prevent companies and governments from permanently recording our conversations, memories, location, medical history, and much, much more. To paraphrase Geoffrey A. Fowler from the Washington Post: "Online privacy is not dead, but you have to be angry and patient enough to obtain it".

Did you know the "nothing to hide" argument can be traced back to the early 20th century?

American novelist Upton Sinclair (1878 - 1968) wrote in his 1917 book "The Profits of Religion":

"Not merely was my own mail opened, but the mail of all my relatives and friends — people residing in places as far apart as California and Florida. I recall the bland smile of a government official to whom I complained about this matter: "If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear." My answer was that a study of many labor cases had taught me the methods of the agent provocateur. He is quite willing to take real evidence if he can find it; but if not, he has familiarised himself with the affairs of his victim, and can make evidence which will be convincing when exploited by the yellow press."

Big Tech and surveillance capitalism

How Big Tech became a global economic force

Big Tech excels at turning users into a product. Private data is a key ingredient to their business model, which is usually build around "free" services, lock-in, tracking and ad targeting.

Google and Facebook have been most successful at this game. And while Apple, Amazon and Microsoft have not (entirely) built their business around spying, they are far from being on the side of privacy. In fact, they hugely benefit from doing business with data brokers and privacy offenders. All five companies — often called the "Big Five" or "Big Tech" — regularly face allegations or are condemned for tax avoidance, antitrust concerns, erosion of ethical standards, reported labor abuses, and so on.

In spite — or because of — these questionable privacy practices, Big Tech is moving up in the world. In 2020, its value reached over 5 trillion dollars. If Big Tech was a nation, it would be the world's third largest economy. Right after the US (21 trillion dollars) and China (15 trillion dollars).

"Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves". As early as 2008, Aaron Swartz condemned private corporations for centralizing, digitizing and locking up information in his controversial Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. Things haven't changed for the better.

What information are tech companies collecting from me?

data collection.

Courtesy of

mass surveillance

Say no to mass surveillance

Many governments cut back on civil liberties. Out of fear from protests, terrorism or diseases, emergency laws are put in place to stay. Ever more privacy intruding practices are deployed on a massive scale.

Yet instead of protecting the public interest, the harvested data is being misused to surveil the population, polarise the political debate and divide the public opinion. This evolution weakens Democracy. History has taught us time and again that mass surveillance doesn't make the world a safer place. Quite the contrary! Surveillance, electoral interference and censorship are the building blocks for oppression and state brutality.

Benjamin Franklin would agree: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety".

Tell me more about mass surveillance

Threats to Democracy Description
Global surveillance programs In the aftermath of the US war on terror, several whistleblowers revealed the existence of global mass surveillance programs. With more or less voluntary support of large corporations, governments throughout the world started to collect, store and share information on their citizens: online activities, phone calls, text messages, location history, etc.

NSA's PRISM surveillance program was first revealed by The Guardian and The Washington Post in 2013. As explained by The Verge, it's a tool to collect private data from Big Tech and other organisations.

NSA's Xkeyscore program was first revealed by The Guardian in 2013. As explained by The Intercept, it's a tool for mass survaillance, fed with Internet traffic from fiber optic cables. To quote Edward Snowden: "I, sitting at my desk, could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email".
Boundless Informant
Boundless informant

Boundless Informant is one of the NSA's big data analysis tools. In 2013, The Guardian published the above heat map, on which countries range from green (least surveillance) through yellow and orange to red (most surveillance). The Atlantic Wire estimated that in March 2013 alone, the NSA retrieved and stored 9,7 petabytes of data. It's hard to wrap one's head around such figures, but just consider that a single petabyte could store over one year of television programming.
Cambridge Analytica
Cambridge Analytica

Revelations around the role of Cambridge Analytica during the US presidential campaign in 2016 or the UK's referendum on European Union membership illustrate how misuse of private data and biased algorithms influence democratic processes and fuel political echo chambers.
Tracking the pandemic Many countries started tracing (or tracking) citizens based on their phone's location to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. The data is collected via apps, or provided by telecom operators and tech firms such as Google and Apple. Behind a seemingly noble cause lies technology which enables digital tracking, physical surveillance and censorship. In fact, it didn't take long before the first privacy flaws where discovered.

Why privacy matters