Omniveillance: Google CEO- If you have something to hide, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it

December 8th, 2009

From Gawker:

On CNBC, Mario Bartiromo asks Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Should People treat Google like their most trusted friend?

His Answer:

“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. But if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines like Google do retain the information for some time, and we are all subject to the Patriot Act, and that information may be made available to the authorities.”

Schmidt’s notion of privacy is disturbing to say the least. Does Eric Schmidt have curtains in his home? Surely he does certain things he does not want people to know about.

Privacy is much deeper than simply saying if you have something to hide, you should not do it. Protecting privacy, and allowing people to have secrets, promotes free speech and expression. Dan Solove has written at great lengths about this. As I argue in Omniveillance, Google, Privacy in Public, and the Right to Your Digital Identity: A Tort for Recording and Disseminating an Individual’s Image over the Internet (pp. 325-327):

The key to understanding privacy is to understand how a person chooses to change his speech and actions in varying contexts.72 Inherent in each human being is a dichotomy between what society sees of a person and what that person knows about himself.73 In fact, the “the first etymological meaning of the word ‘person’ was ‘mask,’ ” as everyone exists behind a façade.74 Generally, when a person is in public, he feels a cloak of anonymity. When no one is paying attention, people tend to act free and uninhibited.75 People may feel comfortable exhibiting certain behavior in front of one audience when anonymity exists, but not in front of another audience when privacy is lacking. A person may comfortably and freely express himself when he has the perception of anonymity, even if it is in front of a close group of friends because of the tight bonds within a social network,76 because there is less fear that what is said or done can be used against him to harm him. Anonymity allows people to act with fewer inhibitions, as they have the ability to control the risk of damage to their reputation.
The logical converse of this proposition is that when someone feels they are being watched, they tend not to act as free and uninhibited.77 When a person feels that others may be looking, he will generally act differently.78 Persistently recording a person and broadcasting the images out of context chills an individual’s ability to freely express himself. If a person knows, or even is apprehensive that he is being photographed by omniveillance, his behavior will be even further modified because the observation will be indelibly recorded forever.79 Recently, a German study analyzing how surveillance affects a citizen’s behavior found that “[p]eople under surveillance behave differently than people who are not monitored—differently than free people.”80 Therefore, understanding the dynamic of people’s perception of anonymity in public is critical for promoting positive uninhibited expressions.

Privacy and free speech can be thought of as two sides of the same coin. They are complementary, rather than competing, interests.81 When properly balanced, they yield optimal results. To further explore this, it is necessary to visualize two extremes. In a world with no privacy protections and unrestricted free speech rights, where everything can be known about everyone, free expression would suffer. A person would not want to express his true thoughts for fear of embarrassment, ridicule, humiliation, or retribution.82 This fear would result in the ultimate chilling of speech.

However, in an alternate universe with absolute privacy rights and no free speech, there would be a similar outcome. A person would not be able to express his true thoughts, and would have to keep all of his emotions to himself. This restraint would also result in the ultimate chilling of speech. Therefore, rather than existing as competing interests, privacy and free speech complement one another when properly balanced to provide a symmetry to optimize people’s desire to express themselves, and at the same time, minimizes any apprehension that such an expression may cause. Without privacy, people do not comfortably speak candidly.83 Without free speech, people cannot speak candidly. For this reason, society should strive to achieve a dynamic equilibrium between free speech and privacy that can promote the optimal level of expression.

It is no small wonder that Google’s views on privacy are informed by statements, such as this one, from Schmidt. The specter of Omniveillance is looming on the horizon.