Why should an insignificant, law-abiding person care about privacy from the NSA et al?

One of the consequences of the Edward Snowden story is a heightened discussion about the importance of privacy - in particular when or if privacy should be traded off in order to combat terrorism. To think about this we need to understand why privacy of individuals is important to a democracy. We often hear statements like “I have nothing to hide”, or as a friend of mine put it “the NSA doesn’t care about insignificant people like you or me”. I may care about my privacy, but should my personal desire trump the needs of our broader society?

For many people, privacy is a fundamental right - they see no reason why a government should be meddling in my affairs without a more specific reason than a blanket search for possible terrorism. But even if you don’t share a desire to preserve some privacy from government agents, you should still be concerned about citizens’ privacy. This is because it isn’t about me, or my friend. The value of privacy to us isn’t primarily about our privacy but about those who play a more active role in the operation of a democratic system of government. Such activity often involves bothering people who have power, and those with power are likely to use their power to suppress the bothersome. But without all that bothering, democracy withers.

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~ Martin Fowler