When someone debating privacy says, "but I don't have anything to hide," I am immediately suspicious. "Would you prove it by giving me access to your email accounts," I've taken to replying, "along with your credit card statements and bank records?" Not a single person has ever taken me up on that challenge–until now.
Arizona resident Noah Dyer emailed me about an anti-privacy project he is promoting. I replied in my usual way. And to my surprise, he sent all his passwords.
"I have given you the things you’ve asked for, and have done so unconditionally," he wrote. "I’ve given you the power to impersonate me. I request that you do not take advantage of me in this way, though I have obviously not made that desire a precondition to sharing the info with you. Additionally, while you may paint whatever picture of me you are inclined to based on the data and our conversations, I would ask you to exercise restraint in embarrassing others whose lives have crossed my path ... Again, I have not made your agreement to that request a condition of sharing the data. I don’t think I have enough money that you would bother to take it or spend it. Look forward to talking more and seeing the article!"
"Wow," I thought. "How reckless to give this access to a complete stranger!" Then I logged in to his email.
* * *
Until age 21, Noah Dyer was a virgin. In fact, he'd never made it as far as second base. A devout Mormon, he then married, had four children, and decided that maybe there isn't a God after all. This caused him to rethink all of his ethical beliefs. Now in his early thirties, he insists that he hasn't changed much in the big picture.
"Zero is still the amount of times I've killed someone, robbed someone, raped someone, taken illicit drugs, or even had alcohol or other substances," he says. "What I did reevaluate and decided to change drastically was my behavior in regard to sex. Don't get me wrong. I loved my wife. I loved our sex. I was happy with all matters in our relationship except for one thing. I really wanted to have sex with other people. And in the absence of a jealous God who is overly concerned about where I rub my genitals, I couldn't figure out why I shouldn't."
Two years of counseling ensued. After much reflection, Dyer decided that a polyamorous lifestyle was, in fact, for him. He is now a divorced professor at a technical college with no credit cards and extremely uninteresting finances, largely because the bulk of his paychecks are directly deposited, per his preference, in the account of his ex-wife.
And having been transparent with his coreligionists about his loss of faith and with his ex-wife about his lost willingness to be monogamous, he gradually came to this life philosophy: Society would be better if no one had any secrets. Email and bank accounts are just a small piece. A person who truly had nothing to hide would also consent to footage being captured when they're, say, fighting with their kids, sitting on the toilet, masturbating, and negotiating with their boss for a pay raise. Dyer is trying his damnedest to do just that. He doesn't necessarily want you to see every moment, but doesn't think he should have a right to stop you.
"In most societies, we [recognize] the right of people to keep secrets. But really, there’s only one purpose for keeping secrets: secrets exist to prevent other people from acting as they would if they had complete information," he argues. So if his ambitious Kickstarter, "A Year Without Privacy," is funded, "I will walk my talk. You will see every minute of my life for a year. You will see every email, every text, every Facebook message and any other communication that I receive. You will see my bank account transaction and balances. You will see everything I eat and all the exercise I do ... If I do have sex, it will be documented as a matter of fact, not with any specific intention to arouse or otherwise manipulate the viewer."
He figures he'll need around $300,000 to hire rotating camera crews, buy them digital video equipment, and pay bandwidth costs for whoever wants to tune in online. So far, he's raised just $628 for a fundraising campaign that expires August 31, so odds are we won't have the chance to see him teach computer programming classes, parent as a single father, trim his nose hair, or browse Tinder.
Nor will we see a project intended to explore his novel approach to political theory. As he sees it, all that is wasteful and corrupt in U.S. governance is made possible by the ability of powerful actors to cloak their bad behavior in secrecy. Advocating transparency in government is, of course, a common enough position. So why does Dyer go a step father, advocating a society where everyone is forced to be transparent?
As he sees it, our insistence on a right to privacy empowers elites to keep secrets. "The smartest people in any society will gain whatever advantage they have over others—whatever the system is, they're going to work it," he says. He sees information as a source of asymmetric advantage, one used by corporate barons and other powerful people with access to it. If only everyone had access to the same information, he says, society would be fairer and more equal—we'd all be able to take advantage of the best possible information.
He thinks most of us would live more ethically too. He is extremely ethically consistent, adhering to his own value system far more than most people, he explained. Yet he hypothesized that being recorded would make him behave even better. "In my value system," he said, "I would see my own kids three or four times a week." He thinks that's what is right in his situation. "But over the summer, they were going on vacation with their mom, I was going on vacation with them, they were going to birthday parties—so I saw them once or twice a week for the last two months. I don't like that. I'm not proud of it. Were my life being constantly streamed, I might have made more of an effort to overcome the logistical challenges."
A typical person given access to Dyer's email accounts would object less to his missing a half-dozen summer days with his kids than to the several married women with whom he has been intimate. Their unknowing husbands would certainly feel that way.
I hasten to add that I didn't unearth that detail (or any others in this story so far) via digital snooping or share it without the consent of my subject. "Over the past 5 years, I have had sex with married women whose husbands were not aware," he told me in the same initial message that included his passwords. "I have missed child support payments, settled debts, and probably done other stuff as well. Some of these things I would do again in a world without privacy. Some of them I probably would not. Some of them my co-conspirators would do again, others probably not. But each of these decisions was made in an environment where the understanding was that they would be kept private. I’m not advocating that all activities made within that context should be revealed. I’m arguing that a society that does so, going forward, will reap benefits that outweigh the cons."
* * *
Dyer deserves credit for this much: Unlike the typical person who invokes the phrase "I've got nothing to hide," he understands that in a society where one actor (the NSA, for example) has access to a lot more information than other actors (Muslim Americans, say) the ensuing asymmetry in power is ripe for abuse. In fact, he says that one flaw in his proposed experiment is that he'd be at a unique disadvantage as a lone actor in society subjecting himself to full transparency, and would be much better off in a world where everyone else was similarly vulnerable.
What Dyer hasn't adequately grappled with is the impossibility of bringing about such a society, in a world where the vast majority of people value privacy, without brutal coercion. Even in the unlikely event that he won over a simple majority of citizens, what about the minority that didn't want to live under the new system? A totalitarian sovereign would be needed to enforce such far-reaching rules. (Even then, so long as minds can't be read, thoughts would remain secret.)
I'd always imagined that if an "I have nothing to hide" adherent were to give me access to their private affairs, I'd quickly be able to show them that a malign actor could wreak havoc on their lives with the information they had revealed. Since Dyer granted that he was vulnerable to information asymmetries and nevertheless opted for disclosure, I had to admit that, however foolishly, he could legitimately claim he has nothing to hide. What had never occurred to me, until I sat in front of his open email account, is how objectionable I find that attitude. Every one of us is entrusted with information that our family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances would rather that we kept private, and while there is no absolute obligation for us to comply with their wishes—there are, indeed, times when we have a moral obligation to speak out in order to defend other goods—assigning the privacy of others a value of zero is callous.
With Dyer's consent to poke around his email account, I didn't feel any compunction about doing so, at first. Absent any definite idea of what I was seeking, I first made an attempt to confirm the veracity of information he'd already given me. Seeking an old resume, I searched for all emails with an attachment. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that I instead found myself staring at a list of emails from every Tinder connection who'd sent him naked cell-phone photos. How would those women feel if I contacted them, explained the access Dyer had given me, and asked how they felt about it? It's impossible to know. I quickly exited that search without noting any names or email addresses. An attempt an an interview might cause them extreme anxiety or discomfort.
I'm unwilling to risk it.
In fairness, Dyer hardly shared his private communications with the whole world. As he pointed out, I am a known privacy advocate and the employee of a respected magazine. I have strong professional incentives to maintain a reputation for ethical behavior. It was highly unlikely that I would try to blackmail any of his contacts, post their photos online, or do anything else malign. Besides, photos are only ever as secure as the email passwords of sender and recipient, and right now they're sitting on various corporate servers around the world. The notion that they were ever totally private or absolutely secure is an illusion.
Yet they were also shared with the expectation of privacy—as were emails from Dyer's romantic trysts with married women, which I also confirmed (though if any of them are reading and concerned that I now hold power over them, rest assured that I neither noted nor remember their names or email addresses). I did not search for the names of Dyer's children at all, a detail I include so they know that anything they might've told their dad in confidence wasn't passed to this reporter. Going forward, it is easy to imagine some of Dyer's loved ones eschewing his counsel when anxious, or grieving, or in need of confidential advice. Won't he miss those interactions and regret the fact that he's no longer helpful in that way?
Dyer is an honest man committing to an ethical code he believes to be righteous. He is trying to make the world better. He doesn't believe people should have a right to privacy, so he is ceding his own. These traits and impulses are worthy of some respect.
I'll be less reflexively dismissive next time someone tells me that they have nothing to hide. This type of unicorn does exist! But I will also understand more fully that if someone truly has "nothing to hide," it means that they also have insufficient regard for the comfort, preferences, and desires of people who feel differently. With funding, Dyer will go forward with his project, and his camera crew will inevitably make people uncomfortable every time that he enters a public bathroom or a medical clinic, or when his child wants to share a traumatic experience with his or her father. The world he wants to create is one where there would be no option to refrain from revealing to colleagues that you'll have hemorrhoids surgery while on vacation; where girls going through puberty could only talk to their mothers about getting their periods in public; and where every time a potential romantic partner rejects you, it happens for all to see. Think of everyone who has ever kept a confidence you bestowed in a moment of need or vulnerability. All of them had this in common: They had something to hide.
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