“One way of beginning to understand privacy is by looking at what happens to people in extreme situations where it is absent. Recalling his time in Auschwitz, Primo Levi observed that ‘solitude in a Camp is more precious and rare than bread.’ Solitude is one state of privacy, and even amidst the overwhelming death, starvation, and horror of the camps, Levi knew he missed it.... Levi spent much of his life finding words for his camp experience. How, he wonders aloud in Survival in Auschwitz, do you describe ‘the demolition of a man,’ an offense for which ‘our language lacks words.’...
“One function of privacy is to provide a safe space away from terror or other assaultive experiences. When you remove a person's ability to sequester herself, or intimate information about herself, you make her extremely vulnerable....
“The totalitarian state watches everyone, but keeps its own plans secret. Privacy is seen as dangerous because it enhances resistance. Constantly spying and then confronting people with what are often petty transgressions is a way of maintaining social control and unnerving and disempowering opposition....
“And even when one shakes real pursuers, it is often hard to rid oneself of the feeling of being watched -- which is why surveillance is an extremely powerful way to control people. The mind's tendency to still feel observed when alone... can be inhibiting. ... Feeling watched, but not knowing for sure, nor knowing if, when, or how the hostile surveyor may strike, people often become fearful, constricted, and distracted.”
- Janna Malamud Smith,"Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life"
The chilling effect of enforced online surveillance is making techies shrug.
“The internet is over,” says the founder of the award-winning open-source legal commentary site Groklaw--who’s closing down the site. Feeling watched by “hostile surveyors” has made him too fearful, constricted and distracted to continue, he says.
The owners of Silent Mail shut up shop say they “see the writing on the wall, and we have decided that it is best for us to shut down Silent Mail now.”
The owner of Internet Service Provider Lavabit is threatened with arrest for closing down the ISP in response to government demands to pass on his customers’ private communications—either you help us, in other words, or you’re a criminal—and tells us that he's stopped using email, and if we knew what he knew, we'd stop too.
As governments replace the very outside possibility of encountering terrorism with the absolute certainty of forced exposure by “hostile surveyors,” the internet is shrugging.
It’s one way to fight back.