Yesterday, the web was buzzing with commentary about Google CEO Eric Schmidt's dangerous, dismissive response to concerns about search engine users' privacy. When asked during an interview for CNBC's recent "Inside the Mind of Google" special about whether users should be sharing information with Google as if it were a "trusted friend," Schmidt responded, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."
Unfortunately, Schmidt's statement makes it seem as if Google, a company that claims to care about privacy, is not even concerned enough to understand basic lessons about privacy and why it's important on so many levels -- from protection against shallow embarrassments to the preservation of freedom and human rights. In response to Schmidt, Security researcher Bruce Schneier referenced an eloquent piece he wrote in 2006 that makes the case that "[p]rivacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect." Schneier writes:
For if 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.
Gawker was quick to point out the personal hypocrisy of Schmidt's dismissive stance, noting that for about a year, Schmidt blacklisted CNET reporters from Google after the tech news company published an article with information about his salary, neighborhood, hobbies, and political donations -- all obtained from Google searches. Techdirt noted additionally that Schmidt's statement is painfully similar to the tired adage of pro-surveillance advocates that incorrectly presume that privacy's only function is to obscure lawbreaking: "If you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to worry about."
In a talk about privacy given to the American Library Association, EFF Fellow Cory Doctorow highlights the error in logic that leads to short-sighted conceptions of privacy like Schmidt's:
We have an unfortunate tendency to conflate personal and private with secret and we say, "Well, given that this information isn't a secret, given that it's known by other people, how can you say that it's private?" And we can in fact say that there are a lot of things that are [not] in secret that are in private. Every one of us does something private and not secret when we go to the bathroom. Every one of us has parents who did at least one private thing that's not a secret, otherwise we wouldn't be here.
So this decision — this determination — over when and under what circumstances your personal information is divulged tracks very closely to how free and how much power you have in a society. When you look at really stratified societies, particularly the great totalitarian empires of the last century, the further up the ladder you go, the more raw power you wield, the more raw power you have over this disclosure of your personal information. And the further down the ladder you go, the less power you have.
The understanding that privacy is a key liberty informs EFF's many privacy efforts, including to improve search engine practices and policies, uncover details about snooping on social networking sites, tighten up laws around behavioral tracking online, argue for better reader privacy, and more. Google, governments, and technologists need to understand more broadly that ignoring privacy protections in the innovations we incorporate into our lives not only invites invasions of our personal space and comfort, but opens the door to future abuses of power.