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Why privacy matters

We fail to defend our privacy because we fail to understand it.

The word privacy doesn’t suggest anything very important. Perhaps it suggests the cosiness of a sitting room with the curtains drawn, the luxury and comfort of a private space in which one can do what one prefers neighbours to know nothing of.

We acknowledge that we – well, others – should be free to indulge our – well, their – weaknesses in secret. We do not press such a right for ourselves, having, of course, nothing to hide. But we allow that a free and tolerant society should not insist on shining a spotlight into every corner.

Nothing of this tolerance survives the demands of public security. If finding dangerous enemies means less privacy for those cheating on their wives, well, so much the worse for privacy.

This complacency rests upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of privacy in our lives.

Even the most truth-loving among us learns early in life to be thoughtful about sharing information and to consider the consequences of doing so. People get things wrong, draw erroneous conclusions, take things the wrong way. And then there are those who will distort or spin to take advantage of our disclosures.

Learning how to manage this is just part of becoming a responsible adult. We learn to be thoughtful about to whom we entrust information. We learn whom to trust with confidences, whom not. Only a child or a lunatic operates on the principle that “if I have nothing to hide I have nothing to fear”.

To repeat: managing issues of trust and information is a normal and essential part of living as a responsible adult.

And the converse is true. If you are prevented from managing whom you trust, you are prevented from living as a responsible adult.

The last person an adult chooses to confide in is someone who cannot keep a secret. The Civil Service is that way; labelled so by the Government’s own inquiries into data protection in public service. It has no prospect of reform in the short or medium term. The Government’s own commissioners recommend the obvious strategy: since the Civil Service cannot secure confidential information, it should have as little as possible in its hands, and as briefly as possible.

Whitehall’s actual “Transformational Government” programme, manifest in the National Identity Register and many new laws, requires us to treat the Civil Service as the most trusted of our confidants, and to delegate to it power to decide who else is to be trusted with our secrets, with or without our consent. They already regard us as either children or lunatics.

Privacy is not about unobserved space behind chintz curtains. Privacy is about our relationship as responsible adults with a state that professes to serve us but is working quite systematically to infantilise us.

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