In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States, the US government enacted laws that weakened citizen privacy in the name of national emergency. This sent up many red flags for human rights and privacy advocates.
These concerns were met with “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” The argument goes that if you're not doing anything illegal, then these violations of your privacy shouldn't bother you. If you care about privacy, you clearly can't be up to anything good.
On the surface, this seems true to many people – but the reality is very different. We may not have had anything to hide in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but that was not the only information being sought after by governments. Indeed, following the passage of the Patriot Act in the US, the FBI issued 192,499 National Security Letters, meaning they collected the records and online activity of nearly 200,000 people.
In the end it only convicted one person.
Now, many have argued that stopping one terrorist might be worth giving up some security for, but according to the ACLU, the conviction would have occurred without the Patriot Act.
Many legal actions you take today could be deemed illegal by future laws or future government. In the US today there is discussion around the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned, allowing states to outlaw abortions. You may not currently feel the need to hide internet searches, menstrual cycle apps, or donations to women's health clinics today because it's not illegal, but tomorrow that information could be used against you.
In countries were organizing around political dissent is legal, that doesn't mean the government is tracking those taking part and using that information to create informants or infiltrate such groups. Or worse, when or if laws change, using that surveillance to punish those involved.
And even if you break away from the legal aspects, we all have something to hide. You may not be ready to reveal your sexual or gender identity, but your internet usage could potentially do that for you. You don't want to make your bank account public; you have that information to hide. And you can continue to list things about your life you'd just rather not make public, regardless of potential legality.
In July of 2021, a Catholic priest by the name of Jeffrey Burrill lost his job and was forced to resign after data collected through his cell phone showed that he was active on the gay dating app Grindr, and that he had visited multiple gay bars in the area. According to the Washington Post:
“A mobile device correlated to Burrill emitted app data signals from the location-based hookup app Grindr on a near-daily basis during parts of 2018, 2019, and 2020 —– at both his USCCB office and his USCCB-owned residence, as well as during USCCB meetings and events in other cities,” the Pillar reported.
“The data obtained and analyzed by The Pillar conveys mobile app date signals during two 26-week periods, the first in 2018 and the second in 2019 and 2020. The data was obtained from a data vendor and authenticated by an independent data consulting firm contracted by The Pillar,” the site reported. It did not identify who the vendor was or if the site bought the information or got it from a third party.
The Pillar story says app data “correlated” to Burrill's phone shows the priest visited gay bars, including while traveling for the USCCB.
While it was not clear who was tracking Burrill's device, the Post went on to say that:
Privacy experts have long raised concerns about “anonymized” data collected by apps and sold to or shared with aggregators and marketing companies. While the information is typically stripped of obviously identifying fields, like a user's name or phone number, it can contain everything from age and gender to a device ID. It's possible for experts to de-anonymize some of this data and connect it to real people.
While Burrill was without a doubt in violation of his work's own code of conduct, he did decide on his own to be a priest. However, his personal life was not harming others and was just that, his personal life. While the question looms about who was tracking him to begin with and why, the fact it was so easy to do is alarming.
What if Burrill wasn't a priest, but just happened to work for someone who held anti-homosexual views who used this data to out him, humiliate him, and fire him under false pretenses? This data, which should be private could (and likely did in the real-life circumstance) ruin his life.
That is what makes internet privacy so important. It's not hiding nefarious activity, it's that we all have an innate right to our privacy.
You might not feel today that you have anything to hide, but you might not feel that way tomorrow and once something is public, it cannot be made private again.