I just finished reading Glenn Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. I really enjoyed (and was infuriated by) it. I was interested in the intrigue of the story of how Edward Snowden contacted Greenwald (and Laura Poitras) and delivered the material about the secret NSA programs of mass surveillance. But, even more than this, I appreciated Greenwald’s comments about privacy and the proper role of the press.

I wasn’t sure I would comment on it, until I saw this article about Judge Richard Posner’s comments about privacy and NSA data collection at a conference about privacy and cybercrime. From the article:

“I think privacy is actually overvalued,” Judge Richard Posner, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, said during a  conference about privacy and cybercrime in Washington, D.C., Thursday.

“Much of what passes for the name of privacy is really just trying to conceal the disreputable parts of your conduct,” Posner added.  Privacy is mainly about trying to improve your social and business opportunities by concealing the sorts of bad activities that would cause other people not to want to deal with you.”

Congress should limit the NSA’s use of the data it collects—for example, not giving information about minor crimes to law enforcement agencies—but it shouldn’t limit what information the NSA sweeps up and searches, Posner said. “If the NSA wants to vacuum all the trillions of bits of information that are crawling through the electronic worldwide networks, I think that’s fine,” he said.

In the name of national security, U.S. lawmakers should give the NSA “carte blanche,” Posner added. “Privacy interests should really have very little weight when you’re talking about national security,” he said. “The world is in an extremely turbulent state—very dangerous.”

Posner criticized mobile OS companies for enabling end-to-end encryption in their newest software. “I’m shocked at the thought that a company would be permitted to manufacture an electronic product that the government would not be able to search,” he said

This is awful stuff. I have a lot of respect for Posner’s contributions to Law and Economics, and I enjoyed many of his contributions to the Becker-Posner blog (until Gary Becker’s recent death). But, Posner’s complete deference to the state (at least, when they do things in the name of national security) and dismissal of the importance of privacy is very disappointing. Especially right after reading the Greenwald book. Greenwald has a great chapter called “The Harm of Surveillance” that everybody should read (especially Posner, it seems). There’s too much to quote (Read the book!), but one pair of sentences that really hit home for me was this:

“We all instinctively understand that the private realm is where we can act, think, speak, write, experiment, and choose how to be, away from the judgmental eyes of others. Privacy is a core condition of being a free person.”

This is very true, both individually and in groups. We really do need to feel like we can have privacy in order to explore ideas and activities, alone or with others, without being observed by those we don’t want to share the experiences with.

Not because we’re trying to get away with bad things, but because we’re figuring things out; and that process is often inhibited by observation.

Perhaps this isn’t true for everybody. But it’s true for me. And, I suspect it’s true for the vast majority of people.

If you don’t like to talk about “rights” to privacy, then at least consider the possibility that a world where people can have privacy and private conversations (even if this occasionally facilitates crimes) is a better one than an alternative world where they can’t.


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