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Your Private Information is a Gift

You Should Decide Whether to Give It – Not Have the US Government Take It Away

A surveillance camera is pictured in front of the U.S. flag, September 20, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

On a hot day last August, I turned off a street in Brooklyn that’s crowded with trendy shops and ducked into Shag, a boutique adult store that offers a friendly space for all customers regardless of gender or sexual orientation. I was there to interview owner Sam Bard about the role privacy plays in explorations of sexuality, something about which I had recently written for Human Rights Watch.

The rights to privacy, free expression, and basic human dignity – including the ability to develop one’s sexuality – are all closely intertwined, which is the point I expected Bard to make. Instead, she offered a distinct perspective – one that is especially pertinent as many people in the United States prepare to meet loved ones for the winter holidays.

Having something private to share, she said, and choosing to share it with someone else, “creates [a] bridge” between people and facilitates intimate connections.

In other words, our secrets, desires, hopes, beliefs, and other private thoughts are a gift – one we give to show trust and strengthen our bonds with the people we value most. And that gift, I would add, is one we should all be able to decide whether to offer. It’s not one a government should be able to snatch away without our consent, unless it has a good reason and a judge’s sign-off.

In the coming months, the US Congress will debate whether to let the National Security Agency continue carrying out two of its massive surveillance programs. The Supreme Court will also decide whether police need a warrant to grab cellphone location data, which by implication can reveal many intimate details of personal life.

When the authorities use their power to sweep up and hoard enormous amounts of your personal information, even when you’ve done nothing wrong, they take away fundamental aspects of your humanity. No matter how wired our world becomes, the right to hang onto your personal information and choose whether to share it should remain just that: a right, not a privilege. And that right is worth fighting to keep.

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