Within privacy circles, Glenn Greenwald’s 2014 TED talk titled “Why privacy matters” is considered required reading. One quote jumps out to nearly everyone ― including the live audience ― has to do with how Greenwald responds to people who don’t worry about privacy because they have nothing to hide.

I always say the same thing to them. I get out a pen, I write down my email address. I say, “Here’s my email address. What I want you to do when you get home is email me the passwords to all of your email accounts…[snip]”

Not a single person has taken me up on that offer.

He continues to explain why that is:

And there’s a reason for that, which is that we as human beings, even those of us who in words disclaim the importance of our own privacy, instinctively understand the profound importance of it.

Ending that thinking with:

People can very easily in words claim that they don’t value their privacy, but their actions negate the authenticity of that belief.

I used to agree and echo the same point, mostly in jest. Some version of “then hand me your passwords” is even a popular comeback on Reddit to the the “nothing to hide” argument.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that the response does very little to actually understand where people are coming from, and to really explain to them why privacy matters. Of course no one would hand me keys to their bank account just to prove a point. I won’t dissect the matter too much ― people much more qualified than me have been doing so for years.

One understated aspect of the “nothing to hide” argument has to do with how humans think of themselves in crowds. Much like in a busy city, people tend to think they are invisible; they are one in many. Everyone feels a sense of anonymity in large crowds. Individuals are surrounded, but not watched. They are not “important”.

I believe the same concept intrinsically causes an average person to suspend the need for privacy in the digital realm. I have nothing to hide, because no one is watching me. I am not “important”.

Up until the 1980s spying was very labor intensive and hard to scale. You could only spy on one person at a time. With the advent of big data digital data processing, falling prices of surveillance equipment, as well as dirt-cheap storage and compute technologies, that is no longer true. Through economies of scale, it is cheaper to monitor and spy on a hundred thousand people than on hundred people.

With the choice of privacy, we have the freedom to choose to be who we want; we are allowed to create identities we choose. The promise of the Internet and technology was to expand that choice even more. Every day, I see that promise reneged.

Recently, many apps including TikTok and LinkedIn were caught snooping on clipboards on iPhones (data you cut or copy but may not have pasted anywhere else). Weirdly, they all claimed to have had the same bug. Even with all the might of the US government or the Soviet spying apparatus, accidentally spying on tens of millions of people’s thoughts was impossible until recently. Now, all it takes is an over-worked software engineer.

We all are creeped out when we see a car following us. I do not believe that at this time privacy advocates are doing a good job of explaining to normal people why digital surveillance is cause for concern. I believe their arguments are scattered, hard to parse, and still considered an artifact of the cypherpunk era. We can do a better job of talking about how knowledge, privacy, and power are interconnected, and how that balance of power has tipped largely against the general public.

We can do a better job of explaining why the promise of a better life through technology has been a lie, and that the cost is too high.

Now, I don’t think we need to be extremists about our privacy. Giving up some privacy is good under some circumstances ― sharing personal details with loved ones creates a more intimate bond, sharing some details with government health departments helps in contact tracing during a pandemic.