3 ways Glenn Greenwald changed how I look at privacy

A sold-out crowd greets Glenn Greenwald at Town Hall Seattle Tuesday night. (Photo: Monica Guzman)

A sold-out crowd greets Glenn Greenwald at Town Hall Seattle Tuesday night. (Photo: Monica Guzman)

Glenn Greenwald doesn’t mince words.

The government is “truly devoted to the elimination of privacy in the digital age,” the lawyer and journalist told a sold-out crowd of 850 at Town Hall Seattle Tuesday night. “That’s not hyperbole.”

noplacetohideIt’s a call to arms.

And part of it got to me.

Seattle was Greenwald’s first stop in a multi-city tour to promote his latest book, “No Place To Hide,” which expands on everything that’s happened in the year since he flew to Hong Kong to meet an anonymous source who turned out to be 29-year-old former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The sympathetic crowd laughed along as Greenwald attacked the pundits that call Snowden a Russian spy and mocked the notion that the government is building its surveillance capabilities purely out of concern for Americans’ safety.

When Greenwald got to privacy, everyone got quiet.

Greenwald is confident, prone to generalize, and weirdly comfortable reading broad motives in others without explaining how he knows them (and without a moderator or public Q&A to press him).

But he gave one of the most eloquent defenses of privacy in the digital world that I’ve heard. One that made me realize I’ve treated a critically social issue as a mostly individual one — even if I can’t believe as wholeheartedly as he does that our government is out to get us.

Three of his points resonated with me:

1. Saying privacy is no big deal if you’re not doing anything wrong is not only silly, but harmful.

I’ve heard all kinds of people — even relatives — say it in the wake of the NSA disclosures: “I don’t really care if the government reads my emails. I don’t do anything illegal. I have nothing to hide.”

I’ve dismissed that argument as someone else’s silly dismissal of a big deal. Now I’m convinced it’s a problem.

“There are all sorts of things we have to hide as individuals that have nothing to do with criminality,” Greenwald said.

It’s obvious when you think about it, but too many people don’t. This is a value thing: The farther the notion spreads that only criminals would want privacy, the more suspicious anyone who wants privacy is going to look, eroding privacy for everyone.

Greenwald said he tells everyone who argues this to send him all their passwords so he can publish their emails and other things on a whim. “Not a single person — not one — has taken me up on that offer,” he said.

2. The wholesale collection of personal data about citizens creates a dangerous power imbalance.

A motto of the NSA, as revealed in the documents released by Snowden, is “Collect it all.”

Glenn Greenwald signs books after his talk. (Photo: Monica Guzman)

Glenn Greenwald signs books after his talk. (Photo: Monica Guzman)

Set aside any discussion about when and whether the data collection is justified. When one side has a lot of it, and the other none, there’s a problem.

The best argument I’ve heard for this comes from University of Washington professor Ryan Calo, who wrote a paper on the data collection being done by marketers and corporations.

In a healthy consumer/marketer relationship, he argues, consumers have tools to resist marketers’ pull. When corporations can collect and exploit vast amounts of consumer data, they can nullify many of those tools, rendering consumers too weak for their own good.

Could citizens be rendered too weak for their own good, too? I don’t see why not.

3. Creativity, dissent and other non-conformist ideas require time spent in private realms.

Public conversations are great. Group conversations are great. But we are most freely ourselves when we have zero fear of judgment. When what we think or say needs no filters for the broader world.

This, too, is a value thing. Nothing about the NSA disclosures make me believe we’re even close to losing the integrity of so many of our private spaces. But we have to pay attention: Losing any may be too much.

“When others are watching, our behavior becomes more conformist, more compliant,” Greenwald said.

That sounds like a future worth fighting.

Mónica Guzmán is a freelance journalist, speaker and award-winning digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.

  • schticknic

    I think Glenn’s reading of the situation is completely justifiable. Not hyperbolic in the least. And I wouldn’t (and I don’t think Greenwald would either) say that the Government is “out to get us”. As he said in his remarks and has said before, one need not be a conspiracy theorist to understand how the powerful retain and consolidate their power. The briefest of historical reviews will show this just fine. Meaningful dissent is effectively marginalized or outright crushed. From Ellsberg to MLK, the playbook is the same. Power operates behind a wall of secrecy, but needs to know everything about us. The opposite of how a functioning Democracy is supposed to be structured. We are supposed to know nearly everything about what our government does, and we are supposed to be private. Our society is upside-down and has been for some time.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      One tenet of the digital world that’s not been talked about enough, I don’t think, is that data is power. I keep coming back to the inherent imbalance between a government that can have the ability to know and exploit so, SO much about citizens and citizens whose knowledge about their government does not reciprocally increase. Strip away all other debate and you’re still left with that very disturbing change. Something there seems very unacceptable.

      • schticknic

        agreed. And I’m sure someone will comment on the fact that corporations collect data as well. But Glenn and others have made thepoint that corporations collect discreet data bits. Banks get a slice. Google gets a slice (much broader, but still just a perspective), etc. The government can get everything, not discreet data points. It’s why Frank Church said if the power were ever turned on the people there would be No Place to Hide.

      • privacyplease

        We’ve already seen the effects even in isolated incidents. Take the 2013 scandal of the IRS rejecting, snowballing, or delaying the formation of tea-party oriented political parties. Remove tea-party and insert your own political preferences. This is a direct government assault on free speech.

        They weren’t using NSA data, they were simply using their own. Combine it with NSA data, and/or other government functions, and it’s a clear line to abuse, well obfuscated abuse at that. Even if the abuse isn’t systematic, but simply a few people with an agenda. If the internal investigations are accurate, that’s all this was at the IRS, the acts of a few. That makes this scarier, not less scary.

        Oh, and by the way, the IRS recently “lost 2 years of emails” surrounding the scandal. Riiiiight….. Here’s a link to the WaPo article: http://wapo.st/UNB8NZ

        • lee colleton

          The abuse is certainly systematic, but it may not be systemic (though I think it’s also the latter)

      • ZillaMod

        Aren’t you the journalist asking locals to wire themselves up to permanently online devices and medical watchmanship of your blood sugar and sweat levels? I know Glenn is sincere. He has his pulitzer for blowing the surveillance state out of the secrecy hole. However, the City of Seattle, it’s journalists, it’s corporations, it’s Fusion Center that surveills data from WA State, Idaho, Oregon and Montana, are heavily invested in pandering and lip service to people enduring the near constant surveillance of your transit systems, your biometric cameras and your FIRST UP drone proposals. When your actions, your coverage and your payroll doesn’t come from US mass surveillance I WILL BELIEVE YOU. Otherwise, you’re wasting our bandwith, Geekwire. Glenn did you a favor if you were converted to the truths that people need their privacy. Actions and time will tell.

        • lee colleton

          I’d put more weight on Geekwire supporting SSL on their site and checking that it renders properly when viewed from anonymizing proxies (such as Tor).

          Critical reportage is also important, but a good start would be walking the talk.

          • ZillaMod

            Geekwire is a publication sitting in the same town who puts up a lot of professional penetration testers and Black Hats. When the NSA hires them they are called “White Hats”. Same people, different hat. The corporations they report on are ready to screw the consumer right out of their privacy so they can cannibalize them for the data brokers. They’re not fooling me.

      • Damiana Swan

        I think the thing that makes it extremely unacceptable is that you don’t have to be doing anything illegal in order to be doing (or just *being*) something that someone else doesn’t like… someone who will think it’s acceptable to use your private information to cause harm.

        A primary example of this is anyone who has ever had a stalker.

        Or anyone who has ever been in a custody battle.

        Or anyone who has ever tried to act as a whistleblower, or organize a union, or even just a protest.

        Think this would make doctors who perform abortions safer?

        How about reporters who actually, you know, *report*?

        Honest accountants, maybe?

        As you said above, data is power. It’s worthwhile to ask what exactly the government (and all those corporations) want with all that power, and what they think they’re going to do with it.

  • Dean C. Rowan

    A good summary. I’ve heard/read him making these points several times, and I’m always drawn to the first one. I once tested a friend by asking him for his SSN and email account password. He promptly disclosed them to me in an effort to make his point that he has “nothing to hide.” Even Greenwald’s account of “nothing to hide” only implies the critical issue. It isn’t whether or not one has done anything wrong that one would want to keep secret, but whether or not one has personal information one wants to keep secure. Bad or legally questionable behavior isn’t the issue for most of us, and in this respect the “nothing to hide” defense is a red herring. We trust banks to secure our information, largely because they are legally required to do so and because their reputations depend upon their doing so. But government provides enforcement of those laws, and we shouldn’t trust a government to police its own wrongdoings. Hence, we should preempt government’s power to access the information in the first place.

  • Bill

    His book was very powerful for the first half talking about Snowden and giving the documents Snowden took. He really let the documents speak for themselves and they were impressive. The balance of the book became increasingly tiresome. His pontificating gets tiresome and undercuts the power of his arguments to me.

  • Chiron202

    “…Nothing about the NSA disclosures make me believe we’re even close to losing the integrity of so many of our private spaces.”
    Really? I guess he figures we’re still pretty safe in the shower with the water running and the lights out…maybe.

  • margaretbartley

    I, too, have had many discussions with relatives and work colleagues about the need for privacy, and the usual response is “I’ve done nothing wrong; I’ve nothing to hide.”

    I like to point out that everyone benefits from living in a civil society where there are whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, and citizen activists. And those are the people who are being targeted. I point out that “we” (meaning the people in the room we are talking in) may be immune from the dangers of a pan-opticon society, because we keep our heads down, our mouths shut, and never ever do anything to seriously challenge The Powers That Be, but we absolutely owe it to our country to protect those people who are disrupting the powerful and/or corrupt. We owe it to ourselves and our children to keep the “troublemakers” safe from interception.

    I like the thing about asking people for all their passwords, to see if they really believe what they are saying, or are just rationalizing fear-based cowardice. One thing I’ve noticed is that when I was gathering signatures, most people, even if they agreed with the petition, refused to sign because they were (in their words) “afraid” to get put on a list.

    And look at how many people are unwilling to even sign their real names to posts they put up on the internet!