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.”
It’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.”
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.