I recently finished a book that mentioned, as an aside among many other interesting ideas, that privacy is a relatively recent invention. Indeed, if we sample traditional architecture, private quarters are virtually nonexistent in all but the most opulent of palaces. In the more temperate regions of the planet, building a private space was not even feasible until the invention of the chimney. That meant every activity — everything — was a public event. In many parts of the world, it still is today.

We Understand Private Property

In the time preceding agriculture, private property would have been defined as whatever an individual could carry and was willing to defend with force. The agricultural revolution, though, was predicated on the idea that you could leave something overnight and it would still be there in the morning. It seems also that barring a few exceptions, the general historical consensus supports private ownership. Throughout much of the record and reaching long before it, a strong sense of property would have been a delimiter between life and death.

The surplus generated by agriculture eventually enabled people to specialize in activities other than acquiring food. These non-food producers, however, would still have needed to eat. It would have been essential that their products be recognized as valuable assets and be under their exclusive control for the purpose of exchange. For people to put serious effort into an enterprise that did not directly contribute to their sustenance, only to be deprived of the result of that effort, would have left them in something of a lurch. It is no coincidence that the punishments for theft have historically been so severe.

We can see then that private property, while not an all-encompassing solution, can largely be understood as an important component of human society. How does this compare to the privacy of information? What is the difference between private and secret? And if you have nothing to hide, should you have nothing to worry about?

Information is Different but Similar

When it comes to information, the story takes a slightly varying shape. Bits and stuff are fundamentally different in character. To steal information from someone does not deprive them of the information itself, but it does deprive them of exclusive control over it. This becomes a problem when the person in question is not ready to part with this control.

It is worth noting that if an individual performs or even simply divulges information in one place, it would be foolish to be too confident that said information would not turn up elsewhere later on, assuming it had any value. This applies to business entities as well.

The thoughts inside a person's mind, for the time being, are his or her exclusive province. Many of them are roving, incomplete and potentially volatile if prematurely brought to light. Private thought can be considered a scratch space for trying to make sense of the world and navigating through it. It can certainly include ultimately harmful or antisocial plots, but also include banal and fleeting musings about how one's sibling appears in a bathing suit. If exposed in either scenario, the thinker in question would in the very least have a great deal of explaining to do.

Literacy Extends Private Thought

It is easy to infer that the advent of permanent settlements afforded the accumulation of stuff beyond what a person could carry. I submit that the advent of literacy enabled people to accumulate more bits than they could consciously carry in their heads. This innovation married bits to stuff, and in so doing caused once completely secure and private information to be subject to seizure and exposure, legitimate or otherwise, just like any other object. Indeed it is now possible to do so without making any physical incursions whatsoever. I argue that in the same way that it is essential that an individual be entitled to the exclusive governance and discharge of his or her own private property, it is equally if not more important that he or she be granted the same rights to the physical extensions of his or her own private thoughts.

If we peruse the information artifacts we create for our own consumption, they share a common character. Diaries, shopping lists, math equations, doodles and mementos tend to be highly contextual, only carrying enough data to do the work of offloading thought and memory. This behaviour is similar in private communications which tend to be riddled with idiom, inference and innuendo. By extension, these artifacts are characteristically unfit for consumption outside the parties for whom they are intended, and herein lies the problem.

The Cardinal Richelieu, famous for his contributions to the crafts of espionage, propaganda and information warfare, is reported to have said given six lines written by the most honest man, I will find within them the means to have him hanged.

Reported, not confirmed to have said, especially if he subscribed to his own principles.

While hyperbolic in some sense, this statement speaks to the notion that even the smallest amount of information, taken as-is or perverted out of context, can be used as a weapon against us. Any artifact of information we generate, especially that which is missing vital clues to its context and therefore subject to contortion by those with an agenda, or even simply requisite of some kind of explanation, is therefore a liability. Moreover, it is infeasible to project what cross-section of the total corpus of our private information can be taken the wrong way. It is also important to add that with computers, we can now accumulate such information, possibly unknowingly, in an order of magnitude that would have driven the likes of Richelieu to orgasm.

Everybody has Something to Hide

To demand transparency from anybody, including our closest companions and loved ones, is to demand that they prepare these private information artifacts for our discovery, whether accidental or deliberate. The alternative is to expect them to incur the cost of explaining away any apparent transgressions, which carries more than an even chance of landing them in deeper trouble, and we can expect the same treatment in return. This is a simple, observable byproduct of our society's increasing complexity. The space for private contemplation has expanded geometrically into our surroundings, just as it did with private property, which we appear to have no trouble agreeing to protect.

There is a deep intermingling of privacy with secrecy, such that we are rarely capable of conjuring the language to tell the two apart. I submit, however, that a secret belongs to a proper subset of private information, exhibiting a number of distinguishing characteristics. Chief among these is that the principal value of a secret is its secrecy. Its application does not matter; it could range from a military coup to a surprise birthday party. The condition is that once a secret is exposed, any advantage and indeed any value that it once provided is instantaneously nullified.

Where the blur occurs between private and secret is in our covenants with other parties, or lack thereof. It exists in the scope of voluntary disclosure we expect from others and that which is expected from us. If we can be construed as owing a piece of information, by agreement, law or social norm, that information is secret. Otherwise it is merely private, wholly subject to our own discretion to disclose.

Scientia Potentia Est

Knowledge is power, and equally powerful is its retention. In treating information as capital, to disclose it is to spend it in its entirety. There exists an army of interests continually prying at our private space, seeking anything from benign understanding, to competitive advantage, to assault and domination. It takes the form of governments and corporations, enemies and criminals, even the proverbial nosy neighbour. Information enables us to direct our actions, and as such any information undoubtetly possesses arbitrary strategic value. It must therefore be our right as citizens to deny its unwarranted exposure.

Herein lies the fallacy of the argument from nothing to hide. It assumes that there is no cost associated in the exposure of private information which does not contravene law, contract or norm. It likewise assumes that anything not secret is fit for public consumption. If you agree with any of the aforementioned, you will agree that this assertion is patently false.

At the same time, information is social currency. We must trade it in large quantities to forge and maintain relationships; to not do so is to impoverish ourselves. Moreover, to guard too much is to provoke suspicion, scrutiny and harassment. Such a strategy is miserably prone to backfire.

That said, our private information is ultimately up to us to protect. It is principally we that know its scope, its value and who can be trusted with it. Reconciling our behaviour with indiscriminant technology and increasingly numerous, sophisticated and not necessarily benign interests is becoming its own burden. It demands of us a literacy and sophistication of our own. It likewise demands of us vigilance and doubt. It is popular awareness that will drive government and corporate interests to account for their probes into our personal affairs. From there, it is conscientious leadership that will protect us from greater harm.