I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard

On fighting discrimination with secrecy

2014-08-31 by Nick S., tagged as law, privacy

Mark Rix opens a recent Conversation article on Australia's proposed metadata retention laws with a couple of paragraphs asserting that "privacy and individuals' ability to remain anonymous are important protections against persecution, bullying, intimidation and retaliation." As I understand it, the idea here is that privacy and anonymity provide a kind of first line of defence against unfair discrimination by depriving would-be discriminators of the knowledge on which their discrimination is based. Such an approach seems superficially appealling, and I'm sure I've used it myself when don't-ask don't-tell seems like the easiest way of avoiding an unpleasant confrontation.

When I think it through more carefully, however, I see a number of problems with this view. For a start, there are many situations in which it seems hopelessly impractical: is anyone likely to suggest, for example, that we defeat racial discrimination by donning ninja costumes or applying make-up that obscures the colour of our skin?

Supposing that secrecy is feasible, however, is hiding beneath it really the ideal outcome in the long run? Many years ago, I read a newspaper article (whose citation I sadly forget) making the point that many of our modern freedoms have been won by people who stood up against being driven underground. Would homosexuality, say, be as widely accepted as it is in liberal democracies today if the homosexuals of yesteryear had simply remained out of sight? I'm sure it wasn't easy for those people who did speak out — but the secrecy solution would have them even now cowering in anonymity instead of finding social acceptance.

Words like "discrimination" and others used in Rix's assertion are often used in a pejorative sense to refer to unjust discrimination on the basis of race, gender, etc., but a broader interpretation shows that secrecy in fact cuts both ways. Law enforcement agencies want access to metadata among other things precisely because our law "discriminates" against drugs, violence, money laundering and other activities deemed harmful by lawmakers and the people who vote for them. To law enforcement agencies, secrecy is just an impediment to carrying out the discrimination delineated by the law. The real question is not whether or not to discriminate, but what ought to be discriminated against.

The main reason that I don't feel threatened by my government or anyone else isn't that I'm secure in the knowledge that the police can never find me — they probably can — it's that I'm fortunate enough to live in a country that respects a broad range of views amongst its citizens, and will punish anyone who refuses to respect them likewise. If the government decides to start rounding up computer scientists, mediaeval re-enactors, or bearded men, well, I'll have a problem — not because I don't have a ninja costume and batcave in which to hide, but because my government has ceased to respect my personal choices. And if the government ever decided to do such a thing, would I be best served by going into hiding, or by standing up for my choices?