One of the most annoying statements made defense of privacy is this:
"What do you have to worry about if you don't have anything to hide?"
And sometimes that shuts down the discussion. It shouldn't. I have come across many good rebuttals, such as "Okay, may I go through your wallet, bank statements, and cell phone right now?" and "Diaries have locks for a reason." and "I want my house key back." But those are not the complete answer.
The deeper, though not most snappy, answer is as such:
People always being watched live diminished lives.
USA Today reported on a Harris Poll recently done that stated 47% of Americans changed their online habits because of revelations regarding the NSA and online spying. Any time you take what a secret agency may or may not think of your actions into account before making a joke or commentary or even having contact with an individual... you are living a diminished life.
In my work overseas, something I have struggled with is trying to relate to the mind set of people who have lived their life in a totalitarian state. There are societies were it is assumed (and certainly legal) for the state to intercept any and all communications you may have. There are societies where a letter the the editor of the local paper or a campaign sign in your yard can land you in secret detention facility or cause you to be disappeared. This impacts people's minds and culture and gradually goes from being perceived as a crime against human rights as just a thing that happens. Of COURSE the agents of our sovereign leader disappeared Uncle Dave, did you see those letters he wrote about the leader? What did he expect?. People normalize this state of affairs and self-censorship becomes the norm.
Totalitarians NEED that self-censorship in order to maintain and grow their power. The police state cannot detain, execute, or even attend to everyone who has a disagreement with those in power. Most of the potential dissidents and activists out there have to be defeated before they ever put a pen to paper or clear their throat.
Our current leaders are by no means dictators.... The two hundred misleading, derogatory and semi-racists JPEGS in your Facebook feed attacking our president without reprisals are a pretty good sign of that. (In addition to an entire news network doing the same, with a thriving bumper sticker industry and the occasional billboard)
But despite the relative freedom of our dumbest citizens to make fools of themselves, there IS a chilling of free speech that is even more necessary to our republic than racist JPEG files.
Edward Snowden has no plans to return to his home nation. Neither does Julian Assange. Chelsea Manning will be imprisoned for decades. Jeremy Hammond, who let us know what a bunch of crooked bunch of right-wing loons Statfor was (while still soaking up tax dollars) and how they were spying on private citizens at home and abroad... He has been sentenced to ten years in Federal Prison. Barret Brown, who wrote about and shared revelations that security and intelligence firm HB Gary was also generally incompetent in their field and full of paranoid delusions and willing to act outside of the law to target Americans, that poor soul sits in prison awaiting a sentence of up to 100 years in Federal Prison. Aaron Schwarz, who had created the RSS system that we all love, committed suicide at the young age of 26 after being persecuted by the Feds over sharing Academic Journals.. Heck, even little fish like Andrew "Weev" Aurenheimer is serving nearly four years in the Federal pen for finding a security vulnerability in AT&T services for the iPad and then, instead of using or selling this, sharing it openly so AT&T could fix it. He left us with this:
-Interview with Forbes
(Disclaimer, Weev is a friend-of-a-friend, so I might have a soft spot for his case)
Since their revelations, The President has addressed the NSA's over-reach, Stratfor is taken a little less seriously in some circles, HB Gary's CEO resigned after being exposed as petty and incompetent and some of HB Gary's partners in illegal activities have been exposed. Heck, AT&T even responded to Weev's warnings and fixed their security holes (and then pressed charges.)
The world we live in is a better place for what they have exposed.
Others are afraid to contribute because of how these men have suffered.
That's true too.
I have written before that you can tell what information actually threatens an institution by what kind of response it brings. It should tell us something that you can rant all day about FEMA Camps and Gun Confiscation and the New World Order without any fear of reprisal... but if you show that those getting rich off of the Security State are useless, petty, incompetent and violating our constitutional and personal rights, if you demonstrate that the emperor has no clothes... you will end up in Jail.
Most of us will never be prosecuted like these gentlemen have. But 47% of us will change SOMETHING we are doing because of how we are being watched. People behave differently when they know they are being observed. This is not a new idea by any means, as Jeremy Bentham wrote in the 1700s as he conceived the Panopticon Prison:
"It is obvious that, in all these instances, the more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them, the more perfectly will the purpose X of the establishment have been attained. Ideal perfection, if that were the object, would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time. This being impossible, the next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so"
The purpose of the Panopticon wasn't to observe everyone in it all the time, but to lead people to change their behavior as if they were. Does this same ability to see into our online lives make us change our behavior? For about half of us the answer is yes, and that number is likely to increase as more revelations come to light.
We are in a once-in-a-generation discussion about how far secretive government agencies and their attached secret corporations should be peering broadly into our lives despite the fact that they cannot prove doing so has ever stopped a terrorist attack.. If we do not limit this beast, it will continue to change our culture and diminish the choices we feel free to make further.