I once met a man who told me he had no privacy.
I found this difficult to comprehend. A life without privacy?
But I will always have my secret thoughts, he told me with grim satisfaction. As if he was engaged in ongoing battle with an intruder who demanded full knowledge, and was winning with his secrecy what could only have been a Pyrrhic victory.
The high cost of concealment, not because of choice, but because of necessity.
This week we have all lost our privacy, with the passing of metadata retention legislation that enables the state and its agents to access our online lives without a warrant, and at their whim. We have now become citizens who are assumed by our government to be guilty until proven innocent, a monumental inversion of our legal process that has passed largely unremarked. We have now become possible subjects of pre-emptive, not after-the-fact investigation by the state. We are instructed to trust the state not to abuse the privileges it has awarded itself, and turn them against us. We have been infantilised to an unprecedented degree. In the eyes of the state, grown citizens now are the equivalent of toddlers.
I think about how an individual’s life is impoverished by a lack of privacy. Not because the individual necessarily has anything he or she wants or needs to hide, but because if we are to attain maturity as autonomous human beings we must have private time in which to achieve this. We must have private time for our thoughts, desires, imaginings, innovations, failures. We must have a door that we can close, a space in which we can claim ownership of our selves that is uninterrupted, and unadulterated by the presence and expectations of another. Privacy is one of the resources a human being needs to flourish. In conditions of diminished privacy, the capacity for critical subjectivity is equally diminished. A healthy individual and a healthy society need privacy if they are to thrive.
If, as I have argued, the capacity for critical subjectivity shrinks in conditions of diminished privacy, what happens to the capacity for democratic self-government? Conditions of diminished privacy shrink the latter capacity as well, because they impair both the capacity and the scope for the practice of citizenship. But a liberal democratic society cannot sustain itself without citizens who possess the capacity for democratic self-government. A society that permits the unchecked ascendancy of surveillance infrastructures cannot hope to remain a liberal democracy. Under such conditions, liberal democracy as a form of government is replaced, gradually but surely, by a different form of government that I will call modulated democracy because it relies on a form of surveillance that operates by modulation. Modulation and modulated democracy emerge as networked surveillance technologies take root within democratic societies characterized by advanced systems of informational capitalism. Citizens within modulated democracies—citizens who are subject to pervasively distributed surveillance and modulation by powerful commercial and political interests—increasingly will lack the capacity to form and pursue meaningful agendas for human flourishing. Julie E Cohen. What Privacy is For.
An individual or government driven to the exercise of crude power over another in the form of surveillance, is an individual or government driven by fear, and deceived by the illusion of control. Like the man who told me he had no privacy but will always have his secret thoughts, subjects, whether in their capacity as citizens or as relating individuals, will be compelled to resist invasive surveillance conducted by the state or another in their lives, or they will mentally dis-integrate, and cease to thrive.
We have always had our secret thoughts, however, the difference now is that those secret thoughts are no longer entirely ours by choice, but by necessity, if we are to protect ourselves from pre-emptive investigation by the state and its agents. The need for a whole new level of secrecy has been added to our lives, since we are now a surveilled people and our online lives are an open book. Every move we make online is no longer our own business, but the business of any state-sanctioned authority who chooses to make us the subject of their enquiries. This power disparity cannot help but change our natures, and not for the better. We will be forced to engage in an ongoing battle with the surveilling authorities, or we will dis-integrate.
And the majority of us apparently don’t care.