“What do you have to hide?” – many of the college students I teach, when discussing privacy

American liberals are on a collision course, and many of them don’t realize it. Right now, they can support mandatory body-cameras on police (even the American Civil Liberties Union agrees) as one way to address police brutality, and at the same time support Edward Snowden and the idea that post-9/11 governmental agencies have gone way too far in invading their privacy. These two ideas – on-officer-cameras and increased privacy – are going to come into conflict. A train wreck is coming. Right now, police departments (as represented by http://www.justice.gov) are saying they won’t film, or at least won’t store the records, when the person has a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” but what exactly is that?

American conservatives, on the other hand, sometimes act as though privacy is a myth, that doors and walls of everyone’s houses may as well be made of glass, that we should have to get everything right on the first take. Just behave correctly and there won’t be any problems, right? For my conservative friends, and for my liberal and libertarian friends who don’t really know the terrain they’ll soon be fighting over, I’m going to do all of you a little favor and give you the ABCs of Privacy…from a privacy advocate’s perspective. These are the things that most law-abiding people would prefer remain private and not appearing on any-old-website.com, the things that cop-camera-loving liberals and shoulder-shrugging conservatives will soon be fighting with Snowden-loving libertarians over preserving:


Attorney-client privilege – Your lawyer isn’t supposed to give away anything you say, which is crucial to a functioning democracy, and stands to be undermined if your every discussion with a lawyer takes place over traceable email or in a building with cameras in every room (like most government buildings and an increasing number of private buildings)


Bathroom functions – You think we can all agree not to film the restroom? Not so fast: if I know that’s where the cameras aren’t, then that’s where I’ll go for privacy, and that’s exactly why police and other cameras will follow


Copulation, coitus, consummation – Same issue as described in bathroom entry just above. Also, let’s just say this is as rarely as sexy as the movies. You don’t want me to see you, and hey, I don’t want to see you either

doctor patient

Doctor-patient privilege – As with attorneys, in a world where everyone texts/emails their doctors, some seriously privileged information could get caught in a police “dragnet” like, say, the one Boston implemented to catch the marathon bombers

exam result

Education records – Including exams, assessments, attendance, all we verbalize in class, and a lot more. Most of us didn’t think that our teacher could post our “F” in algebra on the internet, right?


Financial information – Including wills, trusts, estates, mortgages, assets, even your SSN and birthday – all of that. It’s not as protected as you think it is

government secret

Governmental secrets – Everyone’s favorite “gotcha” against a Wikileaks-loving friend – how to build a nuclear (or other kind of) bomb? The nuclear launch codes? Missile plans? Spy secrets? Most of us want to keep some of this private; most of us also suspect our taxes are paying to keep information private that shouldn’t be


Hiring/firing criteria – Why were or weren’t you hired? Why were you fired? In many cases, this comes down to intangibles. Should employers be forced to make this information public? Most of us say no, but many lawyers are working to publicize this info

internet search

Internet browser history, emails, big data modeling – Should everyone know you the way Google and Facebook know you? Should your preferences be made part of Big Data without your consent? What about everything you ever put in a text or email? Which leads to…

just every stupid

Just every stupid thing you’ve ever said – Texts, emails, spoken words. In a world where everyone’s filming at all times, more and more you’re going to be heard at your worst moments. Do you have the right to ask the filmer to delete what you said?

kid nudity

Kid nudity – Right, we’re all agreed that child porn is worse than Hitler. Yet people continue to take pictures of naked toddlers at the beach, and teenagers continue to take pictures of each other in states of undress (and text them)


Location-based services – also known as Where You Are At All Times – thanks to satellite images, GPSs, your smartphone, and Google maps, being “off the grid” is becoming a fantasy – does that matter?

medical history

Medical information – Related to doctor discussions as covered above, but even your doctor may not know all about various conditions/injuries you or your family may once have had, things that might raise your insurance premiums or disqualify you from certain jobs. This item is related to…


Narcotic history – So, what about every drink you drank and drug you ever did, legal and otherwise? Someone is reading this thinking “what if I never did a drug?” – let’s all hope this particular reader gets through old age without the kind of pain that would require a drug that their employer/family might not love

overexposure of kids

Overexposure of children – Not the same as child nudity (covered above), this is the regular social-media posting of child faces, names and locations, the kind of thing that the child may oppose now/later, the kind of thing that assists child predators. We all have an imaginary line here which wildly varies

porn from boogie nights

Porn/masturbation choices – Not entirely covered by the Internet browser entry above, because porn exists outside the internet (really?) and your self-stimulation, like your copulation, is certainly something that no one wants to or should see


Questionable choices – This covers an entire world that the “what do you have to hide?” crowd pretends is non-existent: racy photos (not porn), amateur dance videos, gambling, petty crimes (jaywalking, littering, driving 40 in a 35mph zone, parking in the wrong place), yelling at anyone, smoking in a non-smoking section, et cetera


Romantic plans and attachments – So, when famous persons’ emails are hacked, does it matter to anyone if the messages include X is dating Y? What if someone is revealed to be cheating? What if someone is revealed to be gay? What if someone is revealed to be straight? No problem? I still remember the quaint days when red-light runners, caught on camera driving with someone who was not their spouse, would see cities post the picture on the internet and sue. I guess that must seem ridiculous to the what-do-you-have-to-hide? crowd. I guess we can assume they will never, ever, ever cheat on their lover. Good luck with that.

salary info

Salary information – Obvious taboo. Also obviously unprotected by law – the Supreme Court has never said that a website can’t publish your salary. And you already see what top actors and athletes make, so keep watching as the taboo steadily goes away


Therapist/cleric discussions which are privileged – We all need to confess from time to time, but there’s already a gray area here; when you confess a crime (or thoughts of one) to your shrink or priest, are they meant to turn you in? As with doctors and lawyers, this zone of privacy is shrinking


Undisclosed hiding places – Not the same as “financial information” (covered above), these are parts of your house (or elsewhere) where you hide money, valuables, weapons, identifying documents, passports. Obviously private right? Not obviously protected by law


Votes, Voting – Of all the items on this list, the secret ballot is officially protected by the most countries. Good. Maintain current course, please

witness relocation

Witness/identity protection – Hadn’t thought of this one, had you, on-officer-camera-loving-“why-would-you-hide” crowd? It’s not just protecting whistleblowers and witnesses who are key to bringing down major criminals. It’s also the Julia-Roberts-Sleeping-With-the-Enemy scenario, where a person should have the right to escape an abuser and restart their lives without appearing on the internet, which leads to…

x scarlet letter

X-punged from the record (or not) – In Europe, they passed a “right to be forgotten”; in America we’re like Yes, I Am My Google Search Results, and major media like the L.A. Times agrees. Apparently the lesson Americans took from high school readings of The Scarlet Letter was “This crowd is awesome, Hester Prynne isn’t”

your secrets

Your other little family and personal secrets – the stuff Ben Affleck didn’t want PBS to know, the awkward heritage, the real-estate deals, the affairs, the family recipes, the sorting out of sexuality, your DNA, the private stuff your parents and best friends and offspring confessed to you – put it all online, then? And more: your ability to draw any kind of salary is probably directly related to you knowing how to do or produce something that few others can do. Post all your professional secrets/work online for free, then?

zippers down 2

Zippers-down nudity – And finally, the classic John Oliver-Edward Snowden way of making people care about privacy. The naked adult body: we love it in the abstract, like Michelangelo’s David, but the (corpo)real bothers us. Remember in gym class when your teacher said “Hey, I’ve seen it all before” and you said “You haven’t seen this!” Right you were; let’s keep it that way