To have privacy you must kill God

English: cover page of Privacy Impact Assessme...

English: cover page of Privacy Impact Assessment for EINSTEIN 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was commenting on Paul Bernal’s excellent blog on privacy, and the title of this blog came to me.  I was arguing, on the blog, with Bruce Shneier and I realized there was a connection, perhaps spurious, in political philosophical terms between the rise of privacy and the death of God. What made me think about this was that our concern for privacy has increased in direction proportion to the increasingly God like surveillance technologies that are emerging.

What made consider this point in detail was the question “What do privacy advocates see as the political good?” By that, I mean to explore what it is that privacy achieves because it is only a means to an end. Privacy is not an end in itself.  In thinking about this problem, I came to connect privacy and the death of God.

What is the theory?

The theory, very crudely, is as follows. Privacy is an epiphenomenon of the modern state. The modern social contract allows us to have a public sphere and private sphere, where none existed previously.  We believe we have a private sphere, separate from the public, where the state cannot intrude.  To get to this point, though, we have to understand its origins. The Ancient Greeks believed that only in public was man free and to be private was not to be as free.  The public sphere was where man found his fullest expression.

A short history of the modern state

The rise of Christianity, in the West, changed the relationship between the individual and their society.  In particular, the Church focused on the spiritual life with a secondary interest in the temporal, physical life.  When the Church as a political institution starts to decay in the Middle Ages, its place is taken by the modern state. As the Church starts to lose its grip on society, the state starts to organise our lives and the private lives start to emerge.  The private and public are increasingly separated.  In time, this culminates with Nietzsche’s well-known statement “God is dead”.  As such, it allows man to free himself from the moral law set down by God and set forth his own values, his own laws.  More importantly, it allows, or empowers, other organisations, such as the state, to take God’s place in defining values and laws.

Surveillance technology makes us see our nakedness

With God dead, man can be private.  He does not have to worry about God’s surveillance. He exists within the state with rights separate from and defensible against the state.  Man is respected and left alone by his peers based on a reciprocal arrangement.  All that remains is to “hide” from his fellow man. Here is where the modern surveillance state becomes problematic. Just as Adam and Eve, once they ate of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, had to worry about their nakedness before God; so modern man and women have to worry about their nakedness before the digital surveillance state.

Privacy is a means to an end; what is the end?

Here the issue comes into relief.  Privacy is only a means to an end. As such, when we argue about privacy, or the need for privacy, we are making a secondary or proxy argument for something else.  We are arguing for a different concept of the public good.  As such, I would suggest that privacy is a proxy argument about government’s role but also about democracy.  In much as the same way that people wanted to “kill God” so as to liberate themselves, the arguments for privacy today have a secondary aim.

Will privacy arguments be a proxy to avoid democratic accountability?

My concern is that these arguments for privacy are a way to subvert the democratic process by arguing that the state be limited in non-democratic ways. What I am suggesting is that arguments about privacy today represents a different view of the individual’s relationship to the state, and most importantly a different understanding of what the political good is for society.

What remains to be seen is what the good is defined as by those arguing for privacy in the technological age.  More often than not, the argument boils down to a crude anarchism that government is bad. Yet, privacy is only a means to an end; it is not an end in itself like government.  As such, privacy remains as hollow of meaning until it is filled by someone’s intent. What we need is a discussion of that intent.  We need a renewed discussion of law and the rule of law. More fundamentally, we need to remind ourselves of what a government is for and why citizens have formed governments.  What we need is a renewed discussion of the best way to live and the best government for achieving it.

We must consider what was achieved when modern man could declare “God is dead”.  Will we usher in a new era of “freedom” and “liberation” or will that only be an invitation to further barbarity as we move further from what makes us human as we attempt to hide our nakedness and remain private?

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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4 Responses to To have privacy you must kill God

  1. Dick Van Dyke says:

    First of all, thank you for a wonderful article. I, as a vocal supporter of privacy and freedom, welcome any reasonable, non-government input that allows (and forces) me to articulate my views better.

    After giving it quite a lot of thought, I must agree with you that privacy itself is not the primary objective in this debate. Governments were set up by people who didn’t want anarchy, chaos, so that they could exchange some of their freedoms for securities. Some people oppose that, but I believe that a certain set of securities, like the security to lead a peaceful life, is a good thing. Western democracies were built mostly on this very principle, that some of your freedoms are taken away so that everybody can benefit from the same set of freedoms.

    This is where I get to the point. I believe that in my case, and the case of other people who are strong proponents on privacy (and, by that logic, a weak government), is that we no longer trust the government in balancing the freedoms with the securities. Hermann Goering said that it doesn’t matter if you’re a dictator or a democrat. Tell the people they’re being attacked and provide safety; they’ll follow you no matter what. I believe that in many cases, we have got to a point where this is true. Governments, (un)surprisingly even the democratic ones, are providing us with irrelevant threats so that they can take more and more freedoms away, substituting them with fictional securities. We are sick of this kind of social order. We see it doesn’t work, so what we think we can do is weakening it. I blame nobody for despising this method from the philosophical point of view – it’s rather primitive. Rather than having a bad government that is powerful, let’s have a bad government that is weak, they’ll do less damage. Or so we think. However, in our eyes, nobody has yet come up with any alternative.

    An interview of Vaclav Belohradsky, a fascinating Czech philosopher (, in Czech), ushered me to a very interesting concept – there is no correct approach to government. The leftist way isn’t the good one, and neither is the rightist. What is good is that they alternate. Each of them corrects the mistakes of the other. This is a principle I find applicable here. For too long the rule of power and property have extended their realm at the cost of the everyone’s personal space nobody is allowed to breach. This privacy movement is an answer to that, a reciprocal force that itself cannot save the world, and isn’t sustainable, because it leads to anarchy. However, I believe that when it gets as far as the anti-privacy movement has gone now, it will naturally be outweighed by the will of people wanting order.

    I, quite influenced by (a shallow knowledge of) economics, put a lot of trust in the natural process of balancing these fundamental social forces, where on one side, there is the government and other powerful, centrist players like the US corporations, and on the other side there is the mass of educated people – those, who know they are naked, and these two powers keep each other in balance. This, however, requires the critical mass of the society to be vigilant and able to act as opposition to limiting the democratic order by non-democratic forces, and that’s no easy goal. However, I believe that it can be done.

    I hope you deem my contribution worthy, and welcome scrutiny to my argument.

    P. S. In case there really is nobody who shares my views, substitute ‘we’ with ‘I’

    • Wow. Thank you for a great response. I really enjoyed it and I am pleased that my blog raised a serious response such as yours.
      First, I think you are right to suggest that privacy is a way to limit government, but there are better ways t do that than assert privacy. The bill of rights offer a variety of ways to limit government.
      Second, the tension is that property is a way to measure commitment or involvement but also a basis for limiting government. It can also be a way to capture government. For example, the states can resist the federal government and the 10th Amendment gives Americans the residual powers as well. Yet, privacy can be ephemeral in its meaning and ability to limit government.
      Third, do we have weak governments anymore? I do not mean that rhetorically, I mean government today is different from a weak or strong government in 1789 or 1812. I do not see that privacy is the concern, nor is it surveillance, as such, but it is more about the structure and content of the government. As a nation of laws, America is still able to restrain governmet. However, in teh sense that you were referring to for Goering, the government can draw support by offering security. We can see this in Ancient Rome for example. However, the issue, though is that the United States, since 1932 has been a peace and war time government. The current rise of the federal state emerged in 1932 and has expandd in line with the security demands. The Vietnam War, the basis for my dissertation (book) created an identity crisis for the American regime because the war was distorted the federal system both horizontally (between branches) and vertically (federal state and local) with a locus on the federal and within the federal on the executive.

      All of the above, is removed from privacy as such, which was what my argument is about. We are losing sight of the common good, the ability to articulate a public good, that is necessary for democratic government. Arguments for privacy will not create the public good nor will they automatically limit the government because privacy, as such is a secondary right, and it is the primary rights (our natural rights) that would be the basis for limiting government power. The final challenge, though is that the United States is still a government of the people, by the people, and for the people so there is a question of how far we want to limit it because what harms us today may serve us tomorrow.

      Thanks again for a great response.

  2. Anomalous says:

    We value privacy today more than ever before with good reason. Everyone has something to hide, something they do not want the general public to know about.

    In the past, most had secrets to hide, things they did not want disclosed for fear of shame, imprisonment or even death. You only have to look at Victorian society to know that drug-taking was widespread, sexual perversion was quite normal, even pedophilia, but it was kept behind closed doors. Scandal only spread when someone leaked a story, servants whispered, or participants were indiscrete.

    The advent of the modern Main-Stream Media, combined with surveillance and the intrusion into every home of computer technology has changed the game. Now everyone’s secrets can be disclosed, against the victim’s wishes, by someone willing to intrude unreasonably or even break the law.

    The Leveson Inquiry showed how far the MSM were willing to go to sell a newspaper. Even to intrude on the private grief of the bereaved. However, should we equate the intelligence gathering by the United States Government (Prism) in the same light as the journalists who caused so much scandal in recent years.

    The State has a fundamental duty to protect the lives of its citizens. It is no mistake that Article 1 of the Human Rights Act is the right to life, as this is the most precious of all rights. That right can only be infringed if it is necessary to protect the lives of others, in defence of unlawful violence, in order to effect lawful arrest, or in action lawfully taken to quell insurrection or riot.

    Any State that neglected their duty to protect their citizens would be called to account, as many in the intelligence services were after 9/11, when it was known that the terrorists were on watch lists.

    The problem is how far should the State go in the defence of the greater good? For instance, if the State did not do all that it was capable of and a terrorist detonated a nuclear device that caused the deaths of millions, who should be held accountable? The State for failing to detect the terrorists, or the citizens of the State for not allowing the State to gather information to stop the attack?

    If we agree that great evil does require the State to gather intelligence to prevent it and that there are people out there intent on the destruction of the entire State, or millions of its citizens, then we must allow the State to do what is reasonably necessary to protect the citizens.

    As I see it (and it maybe a simplistic view), it is not so much the use of programs like Prism that upsets people, but who watches the watchers and how the information gathered is used?

    At present, we leave the elected to act as oversight for the security services. However, that also means that the elected can use (and abuse) the intelligence for their own ends. As Leveson suggested, there needs to be an independent body (separate from the press and politicians) who acts to ensure that the public are not abused by the actions of the intruders (press or security services) or that the information is gathered for legitimate purposes.

    The whistle-blowing on Prism may seem to some to be a noble act, but it is not. It has actually damaged the integrity of security and freedom, just as Wikileaks did. In years to come, after another 9/11 event, many will ask why these foolish people impeded the State in detecting terrorists.

    We also need to ask where we are headed. People are accepting even greater amounts of technology into their lives. They can already be tracked 24 hrs a day using GPS equipment, their phone movements followed from cell tower to cell tower and their image recorded by CCTVs. The UK has one of the highest densities of CCTV cameras in the world and facial recognition has allowed the Police to catch wanted fugitives in real time. DNA allows us to be reasonably certain of someone’s presence at a crime scene and their digital fingerprint can tell the security services who they are in contact with.

    If the same level of gathering had been available in 2001, then 9/11 might not have happened. The security services are already pointing out that a number of plots have been interrupted. It’s widely held that several plots involving the London Olympics were foiled by good intelligence.

    Isn’t it time that the State set up an oversight committee, similar to that proposed by Leveson, to ensure that the security services do not abuse the privileges we give them, in the defence of the State?

    • Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful response. I think there are oversights that are proportionate to what is being done. In one sense, we can say that the certain parts of the US government do not want to know the detail because they want to avoid stepping on the executive’s toes. At the same time, the executive is constrained by the uncertainty of what they are doing. In that sense, one does not want to look and the other does not wish to push to far. The combination, which is endemic to democracy, is what counts for oversight and accountability in national security. The reason for is that foreign policy, especially external security is the sole purview of the Executive and the legislature (and courts) hesitate to challenge that supremacy because there can only be one president at a time.

      In time, the position will change because the parameters of the programme are now being scrutinized by the executive and the legislature. Will it disappear? No. Will it go further underground? No. There is nothing to be gained. What is in question and should worry every citizen is whether the regime is strong enough and vibrant enough, with an internal dynamic which understands democratic virtue, to resist the tyrannical or even totalitarian opportunities present in such technological power.

      We can only hope our democratic instincts are strong enough to sustain our ability to resit the urge to tyranny that is part and parcel of any government.

      Thanks again for the reply.


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