The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the security of your place, your person and your personal belongings and requires search warrants. The government has to give adequate reason in order to invade that privacy. There’s all sorts of abuses of the process of getting search warrants but institutionally that requirement represents a collective understanding that you have to have a really good reason to violate somebody’s privacy.
Edward Snowden’s release of information about the surveillance capacities of the National Security Agency epitomized the whistleblower phenomenon saying, “Here’s a large and powerful government force that specializes in invading privacy. It’s their job to find out what’s going on and what people don’t want the government to know.” There’s a certain logic that supports the government’s need to know, but the NSA had reached way beyond that and Snowden blew the whistle on those aspects of the NSA. He felt their surveillance practices were generalized and not well targeted: they were spying on everyone.
Encryption and web anonymity are of course relevant here. We see an arms race between the surveillance forces and the people who are trying to protect themselves. It is a dance, encryption and the ability to break encryption and get around anonymity. All the ways that happens add up to something very much like an arms race. Each new development gets a counter-development, and it just keeps on going forever. But that dance is about this subject, and for the most part success has been on the side of privacy with tremendous battles raging whenever there is a serious violation.
The Freedom of Information Act is about the transparency of government. For instance I can write a Freedom of Information Act request to get the FBI’s file on me. In the 1980’s I met somebody who was in an activist household with a group of us in the 1960s, and it turned out there was an FBI informant among us that we never suspected. The fellow I was talking to had found out because he did a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. So the FOIA gives people a certain ability to find out where and how their privacy has been violated.
So those are all dimensions of guaranteeing privacy. The more we are thoughtful about “privacy guarantees” and keep the criteria high for violating privacy, the more it fits with what we are trying to do in a wise democracy. We want people to feel safe enough share the kinds of things that need to be shared in order to have the society unfold in wiser directions. And that, paradoxically, requires enabling them to protect themselves from danger and oppression by guaranteeing privacy.