Why Privacy Matters

When people talk about data privacy the argument, “I have nothing to hide,” is often used. It is a fair argument and an assumption that a lot of people have. Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO was quoted saying, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” This argument makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. But after looking into the topic more, I disagree for two reasons. First, privacy is essential to having a free and democratic society. Second, seemingly unimportant information about people can be misused to harm them. In this article I will try to convince you that your and other people’s privacy is important, even if you are doing nothing wrong.

A picture of the Panopticon

In 1778, Jeremy Bentham, a philosopher, theorized a building called the panopticon. The building would allow for constant and discrete surveillance of all people in the building. This was originally theorized as a prison, but it was thought that it could be used by any organization that wanted to control a group of people. The only requirements for this building were that any member of the population could be surveilled at any time, and that the population had no way of telling if they were being watched (Bentham 1995).

What made this idea so exciting to Bentham, were the implications that it would have on the behavior of the population. The idea that you could be watched at any time without your knowledge would force the population to believe that they were being watched at all times, and as a result, at all times the population would have to act in the way that the owners of the facility would want or risk facing the consequences.

A similar warning was issued by George Orwell in his book, 1984. When he described the surveillance state his characters faced, he wrote, “There was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment,” and, “at any rate, they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live, did live, from habit that became instinct, in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard and except in darkness every movement scrutinized.” In his book, Orwell creates a dystopian society that strives to control not only the actions, but the thoughts of his characters (Orwell 1949).

Orwell’s warnings have been proven across many scientific fields. When people are being watched, the way they feel, and their actions shift. People’s buying behaviors are affected when there are people around (Argo 2005). Likelihood to help others is affected by the presence of security cameras (van Rompay 2009). The mere presence of a picture of a watchful pair of eyes causes more negative emotions to be felt (Panagopoulos 2017) and causes more donations to be made (Kelsey 2018). Surveillance by swimming coaches has even been shown to make young athletes conform to training practices that lead to short-term in juries, long-term injuries, and psychological harm (Lang 2010).

The underlying theme in all of these studies is that when you are being watched, you are more likely to conform to the social and societal standards and behave in the ways the watcher would want. This may not be surprising to most people, but the implications may be. 

Edward Snowden brought to us the knowledge that the NSA was collecting phone records, texts, audio and video chats, photographs, emails and other documents of everyday citizens (History 2020). This revealed that we are living in a state of surveillance far too similar to the one laid out in 1981, and that there is no reason to assume that your private interactions are indeed private.

If we accept total surveillance, we will be forced to act and even feel differently because we know that we are being observed. If privacy is essential for people to feel like they don’t have to conform, then we must demand privacy. We must demand that we have safe spaces where we are not under surveillance so that we feel safe to not conform, because only of out of non-conformity, can come positive change.

If organizations are permitted to watch and see everything that we do today, we are also agreeing to let these organizations see everything that we will ever do in the future. Under that state of total surveillance, we will never be able to act and think in the same ways that we have in times past. This is why privacy itself is so important and worth fighting for.

Below are three real life examples of times where privacy infringements have caused harm to individuals, families, or even the world. Even though no person discussed was plotting to do wrong or harm another person, their information was used in ways that no one would want. Information that does not seem particularly sensitive can have long lasting negative impacts on your life if it falls into the wrong hands.

Identity Theft

Dwight Schrute yelling about identity theft.

The FTC’s 2018 Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book claims that in 2018 there were 1.4 million fraud reports in 2018. Resulting in a total of $1.48 billion dollars in losses (FTC 2019). The top three categories were imposter scams, debt collections, and identity thefts. This problem is not discussed enough considering how commonplace it is. Almost everyone knows someone who has, or has themselves, faced this issue. The more places your data is, the more likely it is to fall into the wrong hands. Everything from online shopping, to social media accounts, to free Wi-Fi can be blamed for allowing your sensitive data to fall into the wrong hands. 

I have faced this issue myself. Someone figured out my name and other basic information (probably from Facebook), and my grandparent’s names and phone number. They used this information to call my grandparents and pretend to be me. The scammers told my grandparents that I was in trouble and needed them to send me money immediately. Luckily, my grandparents weren’t feeling very sympathetic and didn’t give the scammers any money, even though they believed them. 

My grandparents and I were doing no illegal or frowned upon activity, but our information became known to people who wanted to misuse it, and they did. The scammers didn’t even have any particularly sensitive information, but they were still able to come very close to stealing money. This is not a unique story and there are much, much worse repercussions that people have faced as a result of different types of fraud, identity theft, and scams.

The Cambridge Analytica Scandal

The Cambridge Analytica logo and the Facebook logo

A company called Cambridge Analytica was hired by the 2016 Trump campaign. The company promised to provide effective advertising and analytics to the Trump campaign. The company accomplished this by prompting users to download an app that gave users a personality quiz. Once the app was downloaded, it read scraped data like your name and likes from your Facebook account. The 270 thousand users who downloaded the app agreed to have their data scraped and used in the terms and conditions. However, the app also scraped the same data from your Facebook friends, even though they had never downloaded the app or agreed to those terms (Rosenburg 2018). In the end, the data of 87 million users was collected (Confessore 2018).

This data was then used to create user profiles in order to better understand and serve better targeted advertising to individuals regarding the election. This collection of data allowed Cambridge Analytica to unfairly improve their campaigning efforts and perhaps critically affect the 2016 presidential election.

Even though these millions of Facebook users had nothing to hide, their data was stolen without their permission and that data was then used to possibly shift the course of the election to the highest office in the US. This simple Facebook information, that few would think needs protecting, essentially broke the american, democratic process.

Target Pregnancy Prediction

The Target logo

Target creates unique guest IDs that identify each of its users. This way, target can see every purchase that its users have ever made with them and when they made it. Target joined this data with its baby registry data to look for people’s purchasing patterns leading up to giving birth. Target then was able to identify that if a customer bought unscented lotion, a large purse, magnesium supplements, etc. they could predict how likely it was that that customer was pregnant, as well as predict that customer’s due date within a, “small window.” Target then, based on a customer’s pregnancy predictor score and their due date, sent specific pregnancy and baby product coupons to customers who they thought were pregnant (Hill 2012).

This may just seem like good analytics, but the issue became clear when these coupons lead to an unfortunate end for one girl and her family. A high school girl was pregnant, and her purchase history showed that. Target started sending her coupons for items like breast pumps, cribs, etc. and her father, who did not know she was pregnant saw these coupons. The father then went to his local target and confronted management demanding, “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?” The manager had no idea what the father was talking about and the father eventually went home. A few days later, the manager called the father to apologize again, but the father ended up being the one who apologized, because since their last meeting he and his daughter had a conversation where he discovered the truth, that his daughter was already pregnant.

Even though this girl had done nothing wrong, she had something to hide. Target’s use of this girl’s purchasing data lead to what could only have been a very unfortunate and uncomfortable situation for her whole family. Few people want their secrets spilled as a result of a company’s marketing scheme, and this girl was no different.

Life is better when people’s identities don’t get stolen, when elections aren’t unfairly tampered with, and when Target doesn’t spill your deepest secrets. Even if you are doing nothing wrong, there are parts of your life that are best kept private, and it is becoming increasingly hard, or even impossible to do so (Morgan 2018). We are at a point where we must demand privacy or live forever with the consequences of total and complete surveillance. 


Argo, J. Dahl, D., Manchanda, R. (2005) The Influence of a Mere Social Presence in a Retail Context. Journal of Consumer Research 32:2 207-212https://doi.org/10.1086/432230

Bentham, J., Božovič, M. (1995) The Panopticon Writings. Radical Thinkers.

Confessore, N. (2018) Cambridge Analytica and Facebook: The Scandal and the Fallout So Far. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/04/us/politics/cambridge-analytica-scandal-fallout.html

Federal Trade Commission (2019) Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book 2018. Retrieved from https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/reports/consumer-sentinel-network-data-book-2018/consumer_sentinel_network_data_book_2018_0.pdf

Greenwald, G. (2014) Why Privacy Matters. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcSlowAhvUk&t=600s

Hill, K. (2012) How Target Figured Out a Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did. Forbes. Retrieved From https://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/16/how-target-figured-out-a-teen-girl-was-pregnant-before-her-father-did/?sh=620806136668

History.com Editors (2020) Edward Snowden Discloses U.S. Government Operations. History. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/edward-snowden-discloses-u-s-government-operations

Kelsey, C. Vaish, A. Grossmann, T. (2018) Eyes, More Than Other Facial Features, Enhance Real-World Donation Behavior. Hum Nat 29 390-401https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-018-9327-1

Lang, M. (2010) Surveillance and conformity in competitive youth swimming. Sport, Education and Society. 15:1 19-37https://doi.org/10.1080/13573320903461152

Morgan, J. (2014) Privacy is Completely and Utterly Dead, and We Killed It. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jacobmorgan/2014/08/19/privacy-is-completely-and-utterly-dead-and-we-killed-it/?sh=2e13871631a7

Orwell, G. (1949) 1984. Secker & Warburg.

Panagopoulos, C., Linden, S. (2017) The Feeling of Being Watched: Do Eye Cues Elicit Negative Affect? North American Journal of Psychology. 19:1 113-121.

Rosenberg, M., Confessore, N., Cadwalladr C. (2018) How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/17/us/politics/cambridge-analytica-trump-campaign.html

van Rompay, T., Vonk, D., Fransen, M. (2008) The Eye of the Camera: Effects of Security Cameras on Prosocial Behavior. Environment and Behavior. 41:1 60-74 https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0013916507309996

Published by Devin Doneen

MSBA student

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