We All Should Have Something to Hide01-29-2021
One repeated argument against apps that allow for encryption and privacy is that those who have nothing to hide should not worry about the loss of privacy. But who is it that has nothing to hide? The human heart and mind is a factory of fantasies that remind each of us of the darkness that lurks within us. To share our hidden dreams and forbidden desires in public would not only be embarrassing; it also would attack the common world that we humans build through our artifice and maintain through our public actions. Public life, Hannah Arendt reminds us, demands a certain level of hypocrisy; we must all have the ability to keep some aspects of our true selves private, and hold ourselves back from the light of the public world. In a world of ever-present surveillance, we lose that privacy in which we can be honest with ourselves. To increasingly live in public is to abandon that wild, natural, and uncivilized part of ourselves, our being as a living being, one who is not always so civilized and presentable.
Given the importance of a private world free from transparency and surveillance, it is refreshing to hear Moxie Marlinspike, the founder and CEO of the privacy oriented msessaging app Signal defend privacy on the grounds that “we should all have something to hide.” In an essay on Marlinspike, Anna Wiener writes:
Enforcing laws, Marlinspike believes, should be difficult. He likes to say that “we should all have something to hide,” a statement that he intends not as a blanket endorsement of criminal activity but as an acknowledgment that the legal system can be manipulated, and that even the most banal activities or text messages can be incriminating. In his view, frequent lawbreaking points to systemic rot. He often cites the legalization of same-sex marriage and, in some states, marijuana as evidence that people sometimes need to challenge laws or engage in nominally criminal activity for years before progress can be made. “Before, it was inconceivable,” he said. “After, it was inconceivable that it was ever inconceivable.” Privacy, he says, is a necessary condition for experimentation, and for social change. He compares the need for a secure digital space to the need for a private domestic one—where, for instance, a child might safely experiment with gender identity or expression. “If I’m dissatisfied with this world—and I think that I might be—a problem is that you can only desire based on what you know,” Marlinspike said. “You have certain experiences in this world, they produce certain desires, those desires reproduce the world. Our reality today just keeps reproducing itself. If you can create different experiences that manifest different desires, then it’s possible that those will lead to the production of different worlds.”