Last month my wife and I shared a holiday with a couple of old friends. We have known this couple since before we got married, indeed, they attended our wedding. We consider them close friends and enjoy their company. One evening in a pub in Yorkshire, we got to discussing privacy, the Snowden revelations, and the implications of a global surveillance mechanism such as is used by both the UK and its Five Eyes partners (the US NSA in particular). To my complete surprise, Al expressed the view that he was fairly relaxed about the possibility that GCHQ should be capable of almost complete surveillance of his on-line activity since, in his view, “nothing I do can be of any interest to them, so why should I worry.”
I have met this view before, but oddly I had never heard Al express himself in quite this way in all the time I have known him. It bothers me that someone I love and trust, someone whose opinions I value, someone I consider to be intelligent and articulate and caring, should be so relaxed about so pernicious an activity as dragnet surveillance. It is not only the fact that Al himself is so relaxed that bothers me so much as the fact that if he does not care, then many, possibly most, people like him will not care either. That attitude plays into the hands of those, like Eric Schmidt, who purport to believe that “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
Back in October last year, Glenn Greenwald gave a TED talk on the topic, “Why privacy matters”. I recommended it to Al and I commend it to anyone who thinks, as he does, that dragnet surveillance doesn’t impact on them because they “are not doing anything wrong”.