A necessary offshoot of the recent Edward Snowden affair and NSA leaks is that every news talk show from here to Washington D.C. has parsed the debate on Privacy (note the capital P), only there has been very little debate. I have yet to come across a single interview or editorial that discusses the importance of privacy: we all assume it matters, but cannot say why it matters.
This leads to the rather selfish claim that "I have nothing to hide" -- the implication being that anyone who champions privacy does have something to hide -- a perverse secret or two stashed away in the closet. What these apologists fail to understand is that privacy matters precisely for those who have nothing to hide: privacy is a place to hide.
It is not a new idea that we tremble in the face of the unknown, nor should this fear be tossed aside completely (it can and has served us in the past) but we must temper this fear with principle. Public discourse evolves in the presence of bad ideas, rather than being harmed by them, as John Stuart Mill rightly noted. It is only by allowing all ideas to be aired that we can winnow out those that are inherently deleterious.
The Socratic Method is founded upon the dialectical -- the vindication of truth through conflict and struggle. Freedom of speech is no different, in this way, from privacy, and we must allow for freedom of inner speech in the same way we allow for outer speech. While the freedom to speak one's mind without fear has long been fought for, and by minds no less illustrious than Frederick Douglass, John Milton, Karl Popper, Rosa Luxemburg, Christopher Hitchens and George Orwell, to mention but a few, the right to privacy has been neglected, perhaps due to the fear that there are those who will use their right to privacy to undermine the security of others.
We cannot ignore either that the the nature of privacy itself changes as technological advances make more of us public.
What privacy allows us is a private space -- it's there in the word -- to conduct our affairs outside the line of sight of the other; it is a blanket on a stormy night, under which we hide ourselves, flashlight in hand, and read; it is a cupboard under the stairs. Its relationship with the storm is only incidental. What privacy gives us is a place to grow as free-thinking individuals with our own volitions, ideas and opinions. Privacy provides us with a venue for the private dialectical, that is to say, discussion and conflict with ourselves. The ability to do what one wants without social stigmata is necessary for this sort of development. If we want a society of men and women rather than a flock of livestock we must allow for them a bubble of solitude in which to conduct some of their affairs. Privacy allows for a deliquescence of proclivities.
The response to the NSA leaks shows us most trenchantly that the public will not allow the mortal trespasses of a few terrorists to bring about the subornation of the rights of all to privacy. On its own, the gathering of meta-data on phone calls seems rather an innocuous encroachment, but it slides quite easily towards gathering of data on the content of phone calls. Or at least it can do. If and when the U.S. government decides that meta-data is not data enough it can further impinge on privacy by collecting information on the content of phone calls. And we will not know that our privacy has vanished until after the fact.
(I'll here permit myself to be a little polemical; there can be no light without heat.) While sacrifices must be made in the fight against those who detest our values with every vile and scabrous fibre of their being it is important not to forget that we must not become like those who seek to do us harm. Perhaps the government truly does need meta-data on our telephone conversations to combat terrorism. We must not forget, though, that our freedoms and rights are what our enemies most wish to take from us.
We must not forget the value of privacy. To do so is to assimilate within ourselves the tyrannical ideal. To lose sight of why we are right is to forfeit to the genocidal psychopaths who would destroy us if they could, the same psychopaths we lose our right to privacy to fight.