The obsession with privacy

In spite of the obvious hazards, every imagined or real intrusion into privacy evokes howls of indignation. Complete anonymity is not achievable if one does not want to open the door to the enemies of ordered society; neither is it morally legitimate. An additional dose of social control would be an asset in our post-modern society.

Comprehensive registration of the citizens, which is uncontroversial in many parts of Europe, induces a storm of protests in the Anglo-Saxon countries. The prospect of detailed surveillance in a thoroughly computerized society conjures up unpleasant feelings everywhere.

Personally I find this anxiety hard to understand. Granted that information from video-cameras, credit-cards, phone connections and internet traffic presents new opportunities for scanning the contacts or whereabouts of citizens. But there is scant motive for the different arms of the administration to extend their surveillance beyond suspect or illegal activities. A considerable conspiratorial imagination is required to perceive the appearance of a Big Brother society in the computer revolution.

But, say the critics, already the possibility of monitoring is an intrusion into our private life. Hardly, if we are not caught involved in some shameful activity, and in our societies this threshold is rather high. At worse we might take a short step towards the norms of a small village which, according to credible authority, is required to lick our children into shape. In the good old times, all new data of human interest were daily delivered by the gossip mill. An additional dose of social control would hurt neither children nor adults in our post-modern society.

A more pragmatic attitude to privacy violations is called for. Instead of conjuring up imaginary terrors it would be advisable to accept a few inconveniences to reduce the risk of bloody terrorist attacks and the spread of drug-addiction. Laws and regulations can always be corrected if the powers of the police are deemed excessive. A practical question of pros and cons should not be misrepresented as a matter of principle.

In the United States it has not been easy to accept even a moderate tightening of public control, but so far this seems to have worked wonderfully. After 9.11.2001, new attacks have been averted despite blood-curdling threats from terrorist quarters. Unfortunately renewed terrorist outrages are still on the cards both in the United States and in Europe.