Privacy. Freedom of speech. Snowden and Zizek

I recently came across the following statement:

Arguing that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say” – Edward Snowden

While at first glance this statement holds water, I personally am totally against this comparison. The limits of freedom of speech – what you can and cannot say – are totally outlined even in democratic societies. You can say that there is no God, but you cannot say that Hitler was a hero, for example, in Germany (and many other countries for that matter). Freedom of speech is not the same with freedom of thought, you can think that Hitler was a hero, no one will know unless you say it.

Privacy, on the other hand, is one key element to modern society. Less than one hundred years ago there were, more or less, no laws that protected privacy (except for privacy of correspondence – which one may argue has more in common with freedom of speech and freedom of association rather than privacy). I have nothing against people entering my private life, let them. My problem is when whatever they do with my private information is not done with my explicit consent. I graciously accept Google collecting data based on my behavior but I will not, under any circumstances, let the state know uhm… where I live? I’ll post happily anything on Facebook, Vine, Instagram, Twitter, Linked In, Goodreads… Ashley Madison, but I will be outraged when somebody reads it. Of course, I’m going to an extreme with this. Bien sur I won’t be outraged when somebody reads it, that’s the whole point of posting my opinions and info on public spaces… such as MySpace.

Back to the issue at hand: freedom of speech is limited by law. Privacy is also, but think of this: you don’t know that your privacy is being stomped on until someone uses your personal info in an obvious manner. You don’t know who read your Facebook post until he likes, comments or shares it. Or physically tells you something about it. Same with privacy: if your way of life doesn’t change, you won’t know that your privacy is being violated. You like it when on your new phone all your accounts are linked together but you don’t like it when the state knows where you’ve been. Moreover, what if your way of life improves due to that privacy violation, but you won’t notice it, similar to your browsing experience?

So, saying you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don’t care about commercials because you have nothing to buy.

Saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say is like saying you don’t care about freedom of thought because you don’t think.

Dear Mr. Snowden, I like you, but your comparisons are way too much for society’s current state. Or perhaps I missed the joke?

Now listen to what a Marxist has to say about privacy.

10 gânduri despre “Privacy. Freedom of speech. Snowden and Zizek

  1. „Disagreement is not the conflict between one who says white and another who says black. It is the conflict between one who says white and another who also says white but does not understand the same thing by it.” – Jacques Ranci

    Sorry, Paul, I honestly don’t see your point. Nice chain of words, I grant you that. Is there a chance you could take the reasoning one step further, for the simple-minded like me?

    As I see it, Snowden is advocating privacy trough his clever comparison ( although one could argue he violated the privacy of a set of individuals through his NSA disclosures). And I see no lack of alignment with today’s society, nor did your conflicting arguments convinced me otherwise. You’re saying freedom of speech is ratified by law and includes some restrictions. And that privacy also is. The „but” ( the explanation you added in your text) that follows is telling me what? That I shouldn’t be pissed by having my private data used for the greater good, possibly my own greater good ( I am totally against „optimized” browser experience, but that has to do with a very long psychology course on manipulation techniques) ? Cause your comparisons with the commercials and freedom of thinking only make me a greater supporter of the privacy need, as per arguments sake. If you were aiming for the reverse, you’ve kind of failed.

    I don’t want to let Google collect data on my behavior online and I do significant efforts to avoid this. That’s a personal choice and should continue to be a personal choice. Google is a private company with a strong economical hidden interest in my data, particularly for a buying inception mechanisms. I have no objection against them trying to collect the data legally and transparently and even succeeding with the people that accept it, but I would have a strong resentment against them obtaining it through an illegal method and against user’s will. This is in no way comparable with me sharing my address with a state that I choose to live in, that is supposed to offer me protection and private property guarantee based on a fixed tax, clearly established by law (regularly updated by the selected representatives) and communicated to all citizens. A state is not (yet) equal to a private company and does not have the same economical drive as a core principle. I am, of course, talking mostly about democratic states, since there are several available across the globe for me to live in. And no, I would not want „the state” to be able to track my presence on Google map as it pleases. My address is not equal to my movements, interactions, etc.

    And Zizek? Is he saying privacy should be abolished? No. He is arguing that the individual is too small in comparison to the global situations. He is saying that the infrastructure to survey everyone all the time simply doesn’t exist ( yet). That we have the tools to collect data, but not the capacity to interpret it all. As he puts it, any invader of his privacy would struggle to understand his communications or get wiser while trying to make sense of it. He is not saying: I don’t have nothing to hide, so no one should ever try to hide anything either. He is just making a strong point on the futility of the individual.

    Apreciat de 1 persoană

    1. Wow! First of all, Dee, I sincerely want you to know that what you’ve wrote here is one of the best things I’ve read on the internet this year so far. And I’m not joking, I would gladly like a live discussion with you.
      So, bottom-to-top: Zizek IS saying that he has nothing to hide, along with the other things. Furthermore, he’s advocating that, coming from a Country where 20-30% of its citizens were part-to-full time informants, being watched without your consent is no longer a surprise. We should treat this infringement by not caring.
      However, I do agree with your point of view as well. I do find the way private corporations gather information on individuals highly questionable, if not illegal. I will and would respect one’s desire for privacy, in the human rights therm, as much as possible. But when someone posts his entire life online and expects people not to know anything about him, that I find hypocritical, and that was the major point I wanted to make.
      Privacy and freedom of speech are basic rights, but they are defined differently as societies change (either by time or by geography). Freedom to speak highly about the Nazi Regime in Germany does not exist. But it does in the US. Freedom of speech was founded by the premise of criticizing your government – so if your advocacy is political, then that right should not be infringed; but when you talk down on someone (like swearing), that’s a whole different thing. Your freedom stops when it infringes someone else’s.
      With privacy, apart from the same situations as the above, it’s kinda hard to delimit. While your own house is clearly privacy, what happens when you broadcast something online from your own house. If people see it, do they violate your privacy? If they share it without your consent, is that privacy infringement? Everything you do leaves traces behind. You go to the store, you get a receipt. You travel, you have tickets. You eat, you leave trash. I’m not saying that you should renounce your privacy and dignity for that matter and live in a glass house (see Zamyatin’s „We”), but don’t compare freedom of speech with privacy. Just as you don’t compare the right to life with the right to bear arms.

      And PS – I meant every word from the intro of the reply.


      1. The year is young, so I’ll assume there wasn’t too much reading so far 🙂

        Please allow me a brief correction, you might have misunderstood my line on Zizek:
        „He is not saying: I don’t have nothing to hide, so no one should ever try to hide anything either.”
        It was a FALSE for an AND logical function:
        Conclusion „C”, where C= „Zizek is saying” is TRUE only when both A and B conditions are TRUE,
        where „A”= „I don’t have nothing to hide” ( I don’t have anything to hide)
        and „B”= „no one should ever try to hide anything either” ( no one should ever be allowed to hide anything).

        A=TRUE, but B=FALSE, therefor C=FALSE
        He IS, indeed, saying he has nothing to hide. What he is NOT saying is: nobody should be allowed to hide anything. He is explaining (not issuing an edict) why trying to hide is futile and why not carrying about surveillance is the defying attitude of the ultimate winner.

        You did highlight the environment he mentioned, of a communist state, where surveillance of the intellectuals was a given, let’s not ignore this important aspect when drawing conclusions. Societies do change over time, and one could argue that they mostly improve( just like the communism was ultimately abolished in Zizek’s home country). The change starts with at least one individual and can propagate. One shouldn’t just accept the unjust as an irreversible given.

        „But when someone posts his entire life online and expects people not to know anything about him, that I find hypocritical, and that was the major point I wanted to make.” I fully agree! Please don’t hate me for saying this, but I found your attempt to make this point earlier as a bit foggy.

        And you haven’t really convinced me that freedom of speech can’t be compared with the right of privacy. Though you are listing sets of sentences that are valid by themselves, I fail to recognize a valid logical reasoning for your conclusions. You’re making understandable comments on the freedom of speech, no doubt.
        I would actually have nothing against allowing someone to say Hitler was a hero, one is entitled to an opinion, as long as the arguments against such a statement can also be freely presented to the same audience ( I am not a Nazi fan myself, just to clarify). And as long as truths or personal opinions are expressed, I see no need for any additional censorship. In other words, I would find it acceptable for someone to declare he or she finds me to be a stupid ass, as long as the statement is not expressed as: Dee is proven to be a stupid ass ( and a false evidence presented, like a clinical paper falsified). But that’s just me ( and I think Zizek would agree with me, though I can’t declare that he agreed already).
        So, yes, freedom of speech is a right guaranteed within a specific set of rules in most of the states on planet Earth.

        When it comes to privacy, the same applies: there are privacy laws issued in the majority of the states. And just like with freedom of speech, one needs to use it with caution: you don’t go around spreading lies without also assuming the consequences, just like you voluntarily choose what you share and with whom. When you broadcast something from your house, you are in a sense signing off a release document to the world. But when you are posting a status on Facebook and actively choose to share it with friends only( who you choose to trust with your data is up to you, with the risks included), any release of the information shared that is not facilitated by yourself or one of the friends you have credited as receivers of your data (like a screening performed by a state agency for „dangerous” topics or an application of a company breaching the contract with Facebook and collecting data you have not volunteered- this happened last year), is a violation of your privacy, within the terms of use for Facebook. Whenever there is a definition of privacy/ privet content and terms of use, there is a right to claim privacy guarantees, within the set of rules. You can claim the right of not having someone step into your house and record you singing in the shower without your approval, as there is a law defining private property. But you cannot stop someone from watching you when you sing in the middle of the street unless a law stating that one is not allowed to look at another person standing less that 5 meters away ( in 2014 such a crazy law existed in California, where you could have been sued for staring at a person).

        Bottom line: as long as there is a legal definition of privacy within a context, you are allowed to claim it, just like you are allowed to claim your right to freedom to speech within the definition granted by the state where you intend to exercise it. I believe I have demonstrated a parallel can be made between the two, using the same set of comparison factors.

        And to demonstrate this is actually not a subjective perspective, I invite you to explore article 12 (and article 19 ) of the United Nations „Universal Declaration of Human Rights”:
        It seems there is a large audience agreeing with me and Snowden, that the two rights can be compared: both being declared as fundamental human rights.

        PS: Would totally love a live discussion, maybe on a different topic we could develop from your last line: „Just as you don’t compare the right to life with the right to bear arms.”

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      2. Oh, and I kind of disagree with Zizek: the general surveillance IS dangerous, because the surveilling entity doesn’t need to interpret all data, but simply focus on a particular individual on need bases. The targeting is possible and that is the mechanism making the data comprehensive, usable and even dangerous, from one point of view.


      3. I do agree with you, Dee, both are basic human rights (freedom of speech and the right to a private life), but I don’t agree with Snowden. Saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is not the same with saying that you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. There are plenty of people that have little to nothing to hide from the government they are criticizing, but, obviously, have soooo much to say. Moreover, I personally thought long about this, but as a whistle blower (act for which I hold Snowden in my highest esteem), if I were in Snowden’s position, I would not have run to Russia. Furthermore, I would not have just nodded my head in approval when Putin says that there are no phones listened to in Russia, and no data collected by the Russian government.


  2. Well, Paul, try to be fair: one may say wise things yet do stupid things. Let’s not judge the man when analyzing the wording. You are smarter than this and you have many other tools to win the argument. I ,too, have my reserves in glorifying Snowden, and I did try to provide a hint in my first comment that I am not ignoring his mistakes.
    Yet, the comparison between the two fundamental human rights still holds water, as you put it. Whether you value one or the other more, it’s a personal choice, but you haven’t convinced me that there actually is a difference in the value of each of the rights.
    You said:
    „There are plenty of people that have little to nothing to hide from the government they are criticizing, but, obviously, have soooo much to say.”
    One could also say:
    „There are plenty of people that have little to nothing to say to the government, but, have much to hide.”
    The key idea incorporated in Snowden’s message (and not contradicted by Zizek’s ) is considering the individual versus the general. The difference between what you value/ care for/ need and how your willingness to give up on one of your rights is not a just cause for forcing others to do the same. This is the actual hot topic in America and other civilizations where surveillance is becoming the norm. And the comparison you’ve analyzed is meant to raise awareness: maybe you don’t care about privacy, but you did prove to us that you care about freedom of speech. Understand the rest of us, please, that value privacy perhaps more than freedom of speech ( it’s up to each of us how we rank it among our set of rights). This comparison is wise and helpful in its attempt of inciting to empathy. Even wiser would be to replace the freedom of speech with each and every other human right until everyone sees the point.


    1. Thanks for that. I’d admit, I’m a bit „ashamed” for pointing out Snowden’s hypocrisy as an argument.
      Regarding this: „There are plenty of people that have little to nothing to say to the government, but, have much to hide.” – Hide what? Are they doing something illegal? If so, what’s the premise, why are they doing that illegal thing? Is it moral? If it is, why don’t they exercise their freedom of speech and association into making that legal?
      My point is, exactly as in the Zizek case: survey me, but don’t take any of my other rights away from me, and don’t use the info you’re gathering against me. And yes, this is a personal opinion, i’m not enforcing it against no one, but I do not know a moral (as mentioned earlier) person that values privacy more than freedom of speech. Best case, they value both the same. Or it might be my ignorance talking. 😀


      1. You are by all means entitled to a personal opinion (especially on your own blog). And you are definitely allowed to value your freedom of speech more than your privacy.

        I think you might be wrong when writing this, though:
        „I do not know a moral (as mentioned earlier) person that values privacy more than freedom of speech.”

        Not only illegal/ immoral things are hidden- don’t allow this assumption to limit your view on the topic. And morality is a grey area.
        I value privacy more than freedom of speech. Would you call me immoral based on your earlier reasoning? Or are you going to argue that you don’t know me and there forth the reasoning stands :)?
        I believe one cannot be prevented from speaking his/her mind through the various expression means that have helped dissidents overcome any infringement over centuries. Just like the lizard jokes of Toma Caragiu broadcasted on national television in communist Romania. I do, however, value privacy not only as a fundamental right, but also as an inner personal need. I need to hide bits and pieces of myself from various audiences. And there are many other people in need of privacy out there, particularly within this superficial society where an opinion against the trends can incite a mob to kill you. Recall your own inspirational statements on intolerance from “Karma e Româncă”? I argue that as long as humans are intolerant, there is a fundamental need for privacy, just as big as the one for free speech. Maybe we’ll outgrow this immature state one day, I do hope so, but we’re not there yet. So I beg of thee, be tolerant with those that value privacy as much as freedom of speech. Particularly the silent ones that don’t have the will/ energy/ skills/ need to voice, through the freedom of speech, a message to the world.

        “My point is, exactly as in the Zizek case: survey me, but don’t take any of my other rights away from me, and don’t use the info you’re gathering against me”

        How do you ensure the info gathered is not used against you? Would you agree that privacy laws are doing this to a significant extend? Limiting how the information can be collected and exposed and thus not used against you (maliciously)? Take a minute to think of disclosures of personal facts about public figures and the effects these disclosures have on their careers or quality of life. Don’t get distracted by the fact that they are public persons and supposedly assuming the risk and remember again, the tolerance message you wrote.

        „Best case, they value both the same.”

        Indeed, I argue this the best case: valuing them the same, as fundamental. And if valued the same, comparable.

        I rest my case.


  3. Well, if you value privacy more than freedom of speech, you’re definitely a Hobbesian person. You will have your freedom inside your own private quarters, but you’ll never overthrow a tyrannical regime.
    And there you go, putting words in my mouth. I’ve never said that a person that values privacy more than freedom of speech is amoral. That’s not even a logical assumption based on my statement. If I said that I haven’t met a three-legged person who couldn’t walk, would you assume that two-legged people can’t walk? And also, I never said that moral people don’t value privacy, but the way I see it (with my huge astigmatism and all).
    And when saying that someone could value both the same, of course you can compare them. My whole statement was built on comparing them Apples can be compared to oranges as they are both fruit. But what you can’t compare is the way you value them. You ca say that one comes first, or is equal, yes, but everybody definitely has something to say, while not everyone has something to hide.

    I won’t rest my case, because this case cannot be rested. 😀


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