Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Privacy, Property and the #SurveillanceState

Have you ever wondered why the right to privacy seems to have risen in importance even as rights in property have diminished?

It is not altogether coincidental.

“The ‘right to privacy’,” says legal scholar Arline Mann, “is a misguided attempt to save some shreds of certain [legitimate] rights while retaining a way to eviscerate others.”

Yes, we each of us need privacy. But our need for something is not a claim on someone else. Privacy is a good, not a right. It’s not something to be recognised, it’s something to be earned.

Civilisation itself is the progress toward a society of privacy, argues Ayn Rand. “The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.”

A right to privacy however while a compelling idea, is not persuasive. The right to privacy, if it exists, “stands as a bulwark against meddlesome other people, especially governments,” says philosopher Tibor Machan.  And when all other bulwarks are being banished, that is not unimportant.

But while we have the legitimate right to take actions to protect our privacy, and while our own private communications for example remain our property as long as we wish them to, this doesn’t make privacy itself an actual right. The broader concept which a privacy right obscures is our legitimate property rights which, says Arline Mann, so-called privacy rights –which are inherently vague and conflict-ridden – are actually designed to obscure.

“The claim that some information is private (or that some observation is an intrusion) is [itself] a value judgment,” says Amy Peikoff,

often substantially dependent upon the individual’s personal preferences. In contrast, the law should just concern factual, perceptual judgments about whether force was initiated or not… Consequently, upholding a right to privacy means that people cannot protect their privacy to whatever degree they please, but rather must depend upon the government’s idea of a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy,’ as set by community standards and limited by community welfare.

My reasonable expectation of privacy is clearly not John Key’s. Or (since she helped shape today’s system of surveillance) Helen Clark’s. Their standards are not mine, and no law or legal principle should be built on such vagaries.

“Privacy is a good -- like food, music, or love,” concludes Amy Peikoff. “So while we have the right to take the actions required to secure our privacy via judicious use of our property and voluntary contracts with others, we have no direct right to privacy per se. . . Laws designed to protect privacy undermine genuine rights to property and contract.”

Like the property we have in our communications. Protect that – properly protect that – and not just this election but the whole debate about surveillance would be very different indeed.


  1. How can I protect my property, my elders saw fit to sell my country to foreign interests before I evan got my piece of dirt......Grrrr!!!
    Kids forget about ya privacy rights, we put that one in the too hard basket for you ungrateful sh*ts

  2. Excellent and timely piece, Peter. "Privacy is a good, not a right" - this can of course only be fully understood by those who derive their concept of rights from man's identity as a rational being, and who define property as being exchangeable value produced by an individual's purposeful effort.

  3. You owned a whole country, Jamie? Do tell.

  4. The only reasons I can think of for wanting privacy are bad ones, and the only people wanting a right to privacy are bad ones - perverts, sex maniacs, criminals, terrorists.

    Every honest person in small town, provincial or suburban New Zealand is wondering why on earth some spook wants to read their emails, laughs at the very notion of anyone doing so, and has no problem with mass surveillance (which isn't actually taking place).

    However, the people talking about 'privacy' are dodgy, doing dodgy things, intending to do a lot more dodgy things - and don't want everyone to know about it.

    There is no 'principle' involved here, no 'rights' involved here - there are simply bad people doing bad things and trying to conceal the number of actual or potential victims.

  5. My ancestors did Peter.
    They risked it all, sailed halfway round the world in leaky wooden boats, conquered these lands from one of the fiercest warrior cultures the world has known. Held and developed it, bled for it through 7 wars in the 20th/21 century(please note my family only served in four of them; would of been 5 but my Uncle got lucky and broke his shoulder before Vietnam)
    Sadly I feel our current leaders have turned their backs on the sacrifices my ancestors made so their kids could live better lives. They are in my opinion coming up well short of the mark and have sold my Countrys soveringty for a fistful of dollars
    A betrayal in my mind.
    A bitter pill for me to swallow, I hope you can understand the feeling

  6. Ah, I see, so you're saying your parents and grandparents sold their bits of country to "foreign interests." I see. So who are these ungrateful shits you're talking about?

  7. Commoner Lineberry

    According to you mass surveillance isn't taking place. According to Snowdon (who worked in surveillance while did not) it is taking place. Who to believe? Easy answer to that one. Let's see. Snowdon has a lot more credibility than a louche backside named Lineberry could ever have. On this topic you don't even have any evidence for your faith whatsoever. You are a common fool.


  8. CORRECTION: Phrase in parenthesis ought to be "who worked in surveillance while you did not".


  9. None of your business Pete if my olds own theirs or not. I'm talking about the politicians selling out. I don't like them opening the taps on immigration(go on call me a racist)
    I'm talkin bout UNGRATEFUL SH*TS LIKE ME, a young returned serviceman

  10. @Jamie, your comments get ever more mysterious. YOu began by complaining that your parents and gparents sold their land before you got your piece of dirt.

    But now you say that's none of my business. And then you say your problem is politicians who sell out.

    On that last we at least agree, but I don't see what it has to do with your parents and gparents selling their land. Please advise.

    PS: I may at least call you a xenophobe. How's that?

  11. Sure Pete call me xenophobic. RIP Lee Rigby 22/05/2013
    When I said 'elders' I meant 'leaders', jeez worked it out bud!
    I'll just assume you ain't a complete simpleton and understand the principles of Supply and Demand and Competition for Resources, yeah?

  12. @Jamie, I knew exactly what you meant: You object to people selling their land to people you disapprove of, and want to use govt force to stop them. Why should I cut you any slack for that?

    PS: One of us is certainly a simpleton. Drummer Lee Rigby's death was not the result of immigration. His muslim killers were home-grown.

    I guess my fears are unfounded.

  14. Pete don't piss on my leg and tell me it's raining, alright buddy.

    Good blogs on Not PC, keep 'em comin

  15. Thanks Jamie. I'll see your link, and raise you another one:

  16. Barbarians inside the gate
    Stay Frosty Lads


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