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The idea that one can give up privacy in exchange for security is misguided and dangerous. It’s a cliché peddled by politicians who either just don’t understand or are intentionally misleading the public. Privacy is not merely a privilege afforded by a free society. Privacy is a cornerstone to security a requirement to protect individuals and keep criminals in check.

The crimes that truly affect us

Let’s start with a few examples of the relationship between privacy and security.

Over 12 million people are the victim of identity fraud in the US each year. This covers each time somebody does something on your behalf without your knowledge, or approval. It has a real cost associated with it: about $5,000 for each of those 12 million people. This happens because some miscreant has acquired private details that they should not have, perhaps account numbers, student history, or medical records. To be blunt, our current lax privacy guards are causing $26billion annually in direct harm to individuals in the US.

I imagine Europe, and other countries have similar rates, but the US had the best summary statistics that I could find.

I’ve read a few sites about cyber-bullying, in particular the prevention tactics. A common theme is that teens should refrain from sharing personal details online, they should assume shared pictures should become public, and must assume the person they are speaking to is not who they claim to be. It sounds like the current state of affairs is an absolute lack of private communications; a feeding grounds for reprobates to inflect emotional trauma on their victims.

I could talk about the necessity of privacy for rights activists and whistle-blowers, or get into the dangers of large corporations tracking your every move online, but I don’t need to. The problems above are faced by all of us on a regular basis. Beyond direct financial harm, or adolescent bullying, Intimate details of our life can easily be used as blackmail against us, or simply vindictive shaming that can cost us relationships, jobs and our self esteem.

The current system of privacy online is horribly lacking. Surely we should be working to improve that, not intentionally making it worse.

The privileged listener

Proponents of the argument hold that giving up private communication leads to improved security. We tend not to find any mention of identity fraud in their speeches. No, they speak only in abstract terms of security, glorifying the quest for potential villains rather than actual criminals.

Their desire is to ensure that all communications can be accessed by trusted authorities. The idea is that somehow we can have private conversations, but that an authorized official could listen in if need be. All we need to do is trust the authorities to never misuse that privilege. Perhaps there are some authorities I could trust, but what scope would be needed for this to work?

Are we talking about local police authorities, or just national agencies like the FBI? What about international cooperation, do UK officials have open access to American messaging, or do Americans have free access to German emails? Is Chinese law enforcement allowed to intercept and read all of our web traffic?

Even if we could agree to who has access, how would we keep it that way. There’s no way to limit technology to authorized users; whomever has the keys has access. And those keys will leak. WikiLeaks has proven to us that even the most security astute and repressive institutions cannot keep information private.

The privileged listener is simply a fantasy: a technological and political impossibility. Any movement in this direction will expose our private information to more people, and thereby lead to more abuse.

Privacy is our security

Our culture values privacy, and has valued privacy for a very long time. Doctor’s visits are confidential; discussions between spouses is privileged by law; our salary slips are given to us in private; we share secrets with close friends; we wear clothes and buy curtains for our windows. We can’t let these values be corrupted by platitudes like “nothing to hide”.

The technology ensuring privacy online is security technology. That what protects our messaging from eavesdropping is also what protects our login passwords, our network integrity, our bank transactions and our infrastructure. A move that weakens any part of this weakens all of it.

Politicians that argue for a privileged listener neither respect our culture nor understand the technology involved. They also ignore the extreme damages being done right now due to lax privacy protection. There is no way to trade privacy for security.