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The Politics of Privacy

With the challenges facing Asian societies in the forms of crime and terrorism it is easy, though hazardous, to dismiss privacy outright in favour of security.  The relationship between security and privacy is far more complicated and is often negotiated only on a case by case basis.  While we mostly approve of fingerprinting all criminals, we are more divided as to whether a government should fingerprint all foreigners and citizens.

Yet polling data on privacy issues tends to be quite perplexing.  While some polls result in individuals strongly claiming that they want privacy, in their daily lives they do not necessarily exhibit this preference when they willingly give their information to companies in exchange for discounts and free prizes, or speak loudly on trains, or on their mobile phones.  Other polls show results that individuals are willing to give up their privacy in exchange for security, particularly national- or cyber-security; but in case after case around the world, as individuals understand more about the nature of the policy proposals, support drops for disproportionate surveillance-enhancing policies over time.

This makes the dynamic around privacy and security one of the more complicated political issues.  Unlike many other domains, a political leader rarely comes out fighting in the name of privacy.  Privacy confounds the usual left vs. right wing ideologies because ideologues on both sides want to defend privacy while enhancing surveillance. 

- On the Left, social equality and justice goals may over-ride individual concerns for a private life when governments want to know more about individuals’ health information in order to prevent social exclusion, to monitor individuals' movements and habits in order to protect the environment, create unique identifiers in order to process state benefits, amongst others.  Yet the Left is conscious of the surveillance proposals in history that emerged from right-wing totalitarian governments, who used surveillance powers to limit the political participation of social movements such as civil rights movements, anti-war movements, and trade union activities.  The Left is also conscious of the dangers of giving private companies too much power over individual consumers.

- On the Right, the need to enhance public and national security is certainly a predominant concern, as is the interest in protecting borders and ensuring that communities are not subject to harmful information.  Surveillance policies are devised to ensure that the police have ample visual surveillance powers, that the security services may surveil communications indiscriminately to fight against terrorism, that governments may fingerprint, profile, and track visitors to a country to ensure against abuses of national laws, and ensure that individuals may not generate 'indecent' content on line.  Yet the Right is also conscious of granting the state too much power, and have recognised the extensive privacy abuses in communist states.

Despite these differences in approaches, there is a strong convergence of interests in protecting privacy within the political process.  We recognise that political parties and political movements need a private space in order to organise themselves.  If opposition parties are subject to surveillance, as we saw in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, and in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, it becomes impossible for them to organise politically to inform policy-making.  Similarly, the privacy of a voter's decision is almost universally considered sacrosanct.