The personal computer is already an impressive technology, and it is only in its infancy. The potential of such arbitrary power in the hands of individuals is incredible - it allows people to generate, share and process information to an unprecedented degree, and with the recent popularization of the internet, this potential is increased dramatically. The personal computer also allows people to hide information. In fact, with current encryption models, it is possible to arbitrarily determine sets of people who may share a particular piece of information, and sets of people who may not. Not only is it possible, but it is cheap and easy.
The most common response to this potential is positive. Oft-cited is the enhancement of personal privacy that this combination of technologies offers. While there are no substantive calls for restrictions on the free use and availability of personal computers and internet access, there are attempts to restrict the free use and availability of encryption technologies. Probably the most well known of these are the US "Clipper Chip", and the US' export restrictions on strong encryption. These are good examples of the most common argument of those who would restrict encryption technology - that the potential for criminal use of this technology is too large to ignore. With the export restrictions, national security agencies were trying to maintain their ability to (relatively) easily monitor the activities of other countries. In the case of the Clipper Chip, internal law enforcement agencies were to be given the means to circumvent encryption used within the US, so that criminal activities could be less easily hidden. Such attempts to restrict free access to arbitrary encryption are met with fierce resistance from several individuals and groups. They argue (directly or through the appropriate legal grounds) that privacy is a basic human right, and restricting encryption technology is an infringement on that right.
The claim that privacy is a basic human right is an interesting one. It is essentially stated as an axiom, and therefore is presented as unassailable. I would first assert that privacy is not a basic human right, and I would argue that ultimately, it does more damage than good. Some of the "good" effects of privacy are obvious. Discrimination on various bases (eg. religion, sexual orientation), can be avoided by keeping certain information private. People in witness protection programs, and victims of abuse can be protected from (further) harm by keeping other information private. The ridicule of ones peers can be avoided by keeping email from one's mother private. Some of the "bad" effects of privacy are obvious as well. All manner of criminal acts become easier, and much evidence of criminal activity can be hidden behind a right to privacy. It is not these obvious effects that most concern me - the truly bad effects of privacy are much more subtle.
Why do we wish to be private? I believe that it is virtually always to protect ourselves. We do not want to be victims of discrimination. We do not want our petty crimes revealed. We do not want our aggressor to know where we are. We do not want our nakedness exposed. We do not want to feel humiliated by our actions. We do not want to be taken advantage of. We want to hide wha, and who we are. And what is gained by this deceit? We do not know what our neighbours do, or who they are.
I believe that most arguments for privacy can be countered in a society where there is none. People in witness protection programs and victims of abuse can be protected because their potential aggressors can be monitored. People who discriminate in unacceptable ways will not be able to hide this fact, and will become pariahs. Email from one's mother will not make you subject to ridicule because ridiculous email from one's mother is a common occurence. It's more than that though. Without privacy, many of the reasons for it dissappear. It is lack of knowledge that causes discrimination. It is lack of knowledge that allows abuse to continue. It is our privacy that makes us hide.
Of course, our current society isn't about to give up privacy anytime soon. Fortunately, privacy isn't an all-or-nothing idea - we accept certain lapses in privacy already. Other forces are at work to remove some of the reasons for our privacy (eg. abuse, discrimination), and hopefully this will continue. In the meantime, it would serve us well to consider what information about ourselves we keep private, and why. Tolerance and understanding do not happen when we hide from each other.
Note to PR and other readers: I apologize for the poor quality of my original submission. I knew at the time that it was not up to expected standard, and could only hope that a resubmission would be allowed. By way of explanation (not excuse), I would like to mention that I spent most of my spare time during the first week of classes looking for a place to live. I don't plan on submitting such a "hasty" piece in the future. Thanks to those who commented on the original - your opinions were helpful in guiding my thoughts during this rewrite.