privacy is a fundamental human right

Bruce Schneier writes another thoughtful and insightful essay on privacy:

Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we’re doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.

We do nothing wrong when we make love or go to the bathroom. We are not deliberately hiding anything when we seek out private places for reflection or conversation. We keep private journals, sing in the privacy of the shower, and write letters to secret lovers and then burn them. Privacy is a basic human need.


[I]f we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that — either now or in the uncertain future — patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.


How many of us have paused during conversation in the past four-and-a-half years, suddenly aware that we might be eavesdropped on? Probably it was a phone conversation, although maybe it was an e-mail or instant-message exchange or a conversation in a public place. Maybe the topic was terrorism, or politics, or Islam. We stop suddenly, momentarily afraid that our words might be taken out of context, then we laugh at our paranoia and go on. But our demeanor has changed, and our words are subtly altered.

This is the loss of freedom we face when our privacy is taken from us. This is life in former East Germany, or life in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And it’s our future as we allow an ever-intrusive eye into our personal, private lives.

I reject the notion that we have to choose between privacy and security, and I agree with the oft-repeated quote about the foolishness of sacrificing the former in pursuit of the latter.


We deserve privacy, and we don’t have to give it up to have security. They work very well together. Encoding messages for my friends and family is fun, but I sure don’t want to feel like I have to do it all the time, just because I can’t trust my government – and, increasingly, my neighbors – to leave me alone.

29 thoughts on “privacy is a fundamental human right”

  1. That is one insightful essay. I wholeheartedly agree. Our Government slowly chips away at our privacy each and every day. Lots of people seem blind to the situation because it’s never affected them directly.
    It is a real threat though. When a 14-Year-Old child can be charged as a terrorist for writing “Tomorrow is the day” as a joke – which can mean anything, not necessarily a bad thing – then there is something wrong here.
    Laws are supposed to protect us, not traumatize children. Privacy is not optional, it’s a necessity.

  2. Privacy is a precious thing, but reading it I kept thinking that there are cultures where privacy is a horrible thing. Perhaps those are no longer extant, but at one point I’m sure humans didn’t care about lovemaking or privy-use in ‘public’. Oddly enough, this electronic age has created a very public forum for private individuals to participate in.
    I don’t know how you deal with it… “fame” would kill me.

  3. I always thought that one of the biggest downsides to becoming a celebrity was the privacy issue.
    Maybe the second downside is becoming a celebrity may over inflate your ego and blindside you to your own personal weaknesses.
    But indeed, lack of privacy has increased these last few decades, and what it does, is provide even more power to the few who love power (and money), and truly can bend an entire culture and make it ill.
    For example, take one’s credit rating. Millions of Americans suffer now from debt problems. These debts problems are not private, and in fact, can prevent them from getting good paying jobs, buying a home or a car, or even feeling like they have enough money to take a vacation … in a country that now works more than practically every other comparable industrial country (you want to compare maternity leave in our country to other countries?)
    Information and being able to invade people’s privacy is big money for corporate America. And given how much corporate America is rheeming Americans today (have you visited your local gas station lately) … I don’t think anything will be changing any time soon.
    In fact, I think we’re headed for a full blown depression. Privacy be damned.

  4. Jul or fb cnenabvq, jura lbh unir gur jbeyq’f byqrfg pvcure xrl ninvynoyr gbh lbh sbe serr? Bs pbhefr, vs vg vfa’g fgebat rabhtu pelcgb sbe lbh, qbhoyr vg hc gb EBG26! 😉
    Seriously though, I can recall being a kid during the cold war and being taught that the difference between us and the kids in the Soviet Bloc was freedom. We had it, they did not. Their government snooped on their phone calls. Their government did everything they could to make travel difficult. If their government didn’t like your country they invaded and placed people friendly to them in power. If their government didn’t like you personally they would capture you, and send you off to some secret prison somewhere isolated and keep you there without due process of cause, for years on end.
    Funny how things change… or is it stay the same?

  5. Privacy is a fundamental human right. We need to really fight for this before we wake one morning and find out they’ve been listening in on our conversations and reading our e-mails because of some random statement we muttered in a crowded room, or wrote in our blog – or a blog comment.
    It may not seem like a huge deal to some, but privacy is really sacred and needs to stay that way… before we find ourselves being placed in prison camps. The past repeats itself.
    — You hit on a great point Chuck. Have things really changed?

  6. I used to think (naively) that I didn’t care if someone was looking through emails or reading IM messages or even listening into phone calls, because I knew that I was doing nothing wrong. But that assumes that you trust the judgment of the person doing the listening. In the past, and again naively, that seemed like a reasonable thing to do. However given the recent mishandling of a number of basic abilities, like being able to board an airplane, I think my trust was severely misplaced. Privacy is very important to me and I will fight every effort to take it away.

  7. I think something needs to define where privacy begins. Does someone having sex in the back corner of a public department store deserve the privileges of privacy? Do people who do things in public that they don’t expect to end up on have any argument when their eventual embarrassment is put out there for everyone to see?
    Then, there’s the Internet and telephone system. The FCC forbids any service from guaranteeing security and privacy over electronic communications for a very good reason that has nothing to do with government access. It should be treated like a public place.
    It would seem it comes down to the physical world. Whatever you do inside your home that doesn’t go outside your home should stay in your home (logically). If you take it outside, be sure to look for that satellite taking readings for scientific study as well as for other people’s amusement thanks to public access of such data.
    We are being watched. We are being recorded. It may be the government, the companies or just nosy and unscrupulous people. Either, we stay in our own homes, or we just be honest people with nothing to hide in public.
    We can fight the government and the companies, but we’ll never stop the innumerable amounts of people who are just listening and watching on their own.
    Smile for the camera. We’re all celebrities now. (I would have thought that the knowledge of privacy invasion would have cut down on the spying on famous personalities. It would seem that far too many people feel that privacy is a privilege only for the unknown people and themselves.)
    The only enforceable limit on privacy is our physical homes. Many places allow physical (and even deadly) violence to protect one’s home from physical invasion. Hey. Whatever works.
    Then again, any home could be a safe-house for criminal activity as long as it didn’t leave the house.
    We’re back to “Where is the line drawn?”

  8. Schneier’s book, ‘applied cryptography’ was very amusing, in that in the US it came with a CD Rom – which was illegal to export to us here in Europe.
    The book also contained source code in printed form, which it was legal to export this from the US (free speech)….

  9. I don’t think “fundamental human right” means what you think it does.
    Your statement implies that privacy is a need that transcends culture and era, and that is simply not the case. You can cite cases across all cultures and throughout human history of humans fighting for their own survival, which provides ample evidence that life is a fundamental human right.
    On the other hand, we’ve tended more toward communal arrangements, than toward going it alone. You’ll find plenty of examples of large groups of people sharing single dwellings. Eating, defecating, and even fornicating would take place under the watchful eyes of many. People living alone, in homes that are shut off from the outside world is a very recent and rare phenomenon.
    Just because our culture finds invasions of privacy to be very distasteful, doesn’t mean it should be propped up on a historical pedestal. You are treating an annoyance like it was a founding principle of the Magna Carta.

  10. That sound of one person clapping is Thomas Jefferson.
    And privacy isn’t in the Magna Carta because they may as well have added instructions for nose picking. Its too common sense to mention.

  11. All right a juicy topic. First off I agree with you in principle. First off, “This is life in former East Germany, or life in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq”…Thats the first time I’ve ever heard George Bush get credit as being the bringer of Civil Rights to 33 million+ people. Most of the time when I here left wing people speak of Iraq I would swear he invaded New Jersey and took away their beer.
    Not to demean your conversations but I think they have better things to listen to than you or me or any average Joe for that matter, not to mention their are way to many random conversations how many people do you think work in the government. People are flagged by there actions before wire tapping or anything else takes place. Purchasing large amounts of certain materials, etc. Being on a farm, fertilizer is one of them. OMG their coming for me. Third paragraph, I don’t feel it, you shouldn’t either, don’t let paranoia hamper ya or get ya down. As far as your code if it has any rythmic patterns to it the government would decifer that in about 5 minutes otherwise give it 10. This is something that has been worked on since WWII and no country to date has been able to create a code we can’t decifer.
    Back to what I agree with you on. I agree with privacy being a need that should be preserved and for 99.9% of us it is. Thats still probably kinda exxagerated considering that would be like a third of a million people sounds rather high to me but I’m sure somebody will play it to the bone for political points. Needless to say back in about 95′ for about half a year I listened to peoples stupid conversations all the time, when I worked at a pager(prehistoric device) place and typed in the spoken word. Everything from drug deals to some woman telling me she was naked and in bed, still remember that one. Needless to say I don’t think anybody went to jail for their criminal confessions and FCC confidentiality agreements bound me too never speak of the conversations, which is a violation of yet another law. Not reporting a crime is a crime, catch 22. I hated that job. I just wonder how many people knew that pager messages were translated by hand.
    “We do nothing wrong when we make love or go to the bathroom.” How many millions are giving that one up right now of free will on the internet.
    Anyway hope the rib is better and I wanna say Hi to my best friend who is still in Afghanistan been there since the May before last, we’ve been friends since we were kids. He’s a Master Sgt. in the Special Forces. Semper Fi brother. Keep it safe buddy. He gave me the 3 a.m. call I woke up next thing I hear is blam, blam, blam in repetitious harmony. He calls me in the middle of a fire fight with the taliban forces. Lets all remember a moment for the 10 french paratroopers who just lost their lives in the name of liberty, for a people we barely understand.

  12. WTF?? If people are giving the right to privacy up on the internet of their free will, then they are exercising their rights.That doesn’t mean that everyone else’s rights are null too.
    As far as conversations go, there are programs that can listen to recorded phone conversations, and pick out “trigger” words or word groupings and send those for further review… That means that somewhere, there may be a record of a conversation you thought was private. Same goes for emails.
    And check your facts before you make a statement like “and no country to date has been able to create a code we can’t decifer (sp).”
    The Kryptos code is only one of many codes that to this date remain unbroken.
    We have less privacy these days than most people even realize.With the advent of warrant less wiretapping, infinity transmitters (that can record what you say in the same room as your phone even when its on the hook, and government subpoenas of Google, very little of what we say/do and dare i say it.. think is private.Welcome to the Orwellian world.

  13. People should not kid themselves. America is the most privacy-centric place on the planet. Simply talk to someone from or take a trip to Japan, France, Spain or Germany or other “enlightened” countries.
    I find it comedically ironic that those that rail for nationalized healthcare, carbon credits/taxes, forced morality of affirmative action and other altruistic nightmares, et al., are often times the very same folks railing against “privacy” violations.
    Please. You sign your life over the government, and the government owns you. It’s a very simple concept.

  14. Spartica – Glad to know I’m not the only non-paranoid (or is “naive” a better word?) around. Like you, I don’t understand why people think the government is interested in monitoring their mundane conversations. I can honestly say that I’ve not changed a single word I’ve written online or spoken on the phone out of concern that Big Brother is watching. I’m pretty sure the men in black don’t care what I need to pick up at the grocery store or whether my wife remembered to feed the dog.

  15. Benjamin Franklin said: “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
    Dead for over 200 years, but he still can bring it.

  16. Privacy is a fundamental myth. There’s no such thing, never has been, and never will be. What’s more, there *shouldn’t* be, in the sense that people shouldn’t be able to get away with doing horrible things to other people (or any other living things) in secrecy. The truth is that *regardless* of the state of “privacy”, there’s no telling who’s going to burst in on you at the “wrong moment”, or just happen to observe you doing any given thing. the bottom line is that if you don’t want the world to know what you’re doing at any given moment, don’t do it. Privacy is extremely overrated.
    That said, it’s freedom that is important, and is just as little understood as privacy. People should be able to do anything they want without fear of ridicule or worse, AS LONG AS IT DOESN’T AFFECT ANOTHER PERSON’S FREEDOM OR QUALITY OF LIFE. Too many people don’t understand that their freedom ends where another’s begins, and that they don’t have a “right” to so much as intentionally annoy another person. On the other hand, no one has a right to be annoyed at somebody else when the other person’s behavior has no actual effect on them, either. That includes freedom of expression: I don’t have a right to go to a KKK meeting and yell insults or anything else, and I don’t have a right to be annoyed that they exist or have meetings. As long as they don’t get in my face and don’t try to force their views on me, they can think and say what they want. The line is when there’s a “captive audience” – if the one who is offended is free to go about their business unhindered, there’s no problem. But when someone is not allowed to coincidentally (as in unintentionally, and specifically public spaces) share space with another without being attacked in some way, that’s not okay. It’s a complicated issue, but it’s very important.
    And most important of all, one person or group should not be able to impose their moral system on another. The controversies over porn, polygamy, gay marriage, etc. etc. should not even be allowed into the courts or legislation in any way. None of those issues are anybody’s business but the individuals directly involved. For that matter, the concept of “marriage” should never have been entered as a legal concept or status, because it is a religious concept and is a blatant and fundamental violation of the separation of church and state. It is *religious*, not rational or sensible values that dictate the definition of the term. With regard to taxes and other legal issues, simply designate the non-working partner as a dependant – the specific relationship is irrelevant – and you’re done. If both are working, then they shouldn’t get any tax breaks.

  17. The fundamental problem is that way too many people confuse privacy with freedom from oppression, including Schneier in the quoted text above. It’s not privacy that “protects us from abuses by those in power”, it’s the freedom of expression and other constitutional and legal protections for which the sole purpose is to do exactly that, protect us from oppression. The fictional concept of “privacy” has nothing whatsoever to do with it.

  18. Rights. I’m going to play devil’s advocate on a very large scale here but let me clear a few things first. First, I would like it if it were possible for every person on the face of the planet to be able to live healthy lives without being abused, harassed, or anything else of the sort which keeps them from enjoying the world around them (y’know, short of abusing, harassing or violating other people in any number of ways). Second, I also recognize that how we define the way we act is by rules placed upon us by not only the government, but the very society we live in. Now that those statements are out of the way, here’s my little take. We have no rights. We are not destined to become the universe’s (or insert Deity’s name here) greatest creation. We are merely a species which evolved to have a higher brain function than the other species inhabiting the planet. We have done everything in our power to maintain the dominant status quo and have placed rules upon ourselves to better control one another’s behavior and actions so as to remove chaos wherever possible; to give the ability to live ‘better’ lives without interference by others (who, by the way, are striving to make their own lives better faster than you can as though there were a limited amount of tickets to a movie).
    In reality, the laws which govern our reality care nothing for our wellbeing, our privacy, our wants and hopes and needs. We’ve simply adapted to situations over however long we’ve existed and made our own little niche within the system flow. We don’t truly have any rights per se aside from the ones we’ve given ourselves. To claim any right is a logical fallacy in the grand context of our existence, a sort of entitlement that is inherent within our species as though the planet really cares for our “right” to read what we want, or listen to whatever music we want. It is all the mere illusion of control, control we put upon ourselves so that we can believe we have any importance or status within whatever situations this world provides.
    So maybe it’s the cynic in me that looks at each day as merely another time period in which I do things which have no significance to the overall history of the universe; whether I sung in a band or work my way towards a new career are merely situations which I have and am adapting to. in the end, when I shuffle off this mortal coil, does the universe weep at my passing. Nope. Nor has it or will it weep for any of us.
    So really, go ahead with the rights debate all you want people. A right to privacy, a right for this or that. I see it as mere luck we as a species have survived this long.

  19. @ Khal James Well Stated, it should have been called the bill of priveleges or gifts. The founders however were christians and believed rights were bestowed to us by God. As America loses its religion, whos giving them to us? Thats sort of off topic.

  20. I concur, although while we are at the tipping point, I don’t think the situation is that dire yet. We as a nation do need to be very careful how we proceed, regardless of election results.
    Privacy needs to be protected, and everyone needs to be armed.

  21. Privacy is a very important issue of our time. Not only because governments tend to reduce it due to “security”. I think, that it is only one aspect of the situation – and maybe not even the most decisive. Of course, I agree with you that freedom (and privacy) are not to sacrifice in the name of security. That kind of security smells like government control…ugh.
    About privacy in general: I honestly think that privacy, as we know it, will be a past thing in the future. Look at what the internet, especially Web 2.0 is up to concerning the “ordinary” people. It’s absolutely fascinating on the one hand, and I love it. On the other hand, it’s going to re-define things like “copyright” and “privacy”. We will need to find new agreements and new laws for those…the world is in a fascinating change at this time, not only concerning these but many other things, too.
    I hope, we can go with our technical and communicative abilities without abusing them in this way or the other! I have great believe in humankind,that we can solve our problems and live together peacefully. I got this view and believe a great deal from Star Trek, my all time favorite show since I was ten years old.
    Lots of love
    from Elli

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