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Privacy should still matter

“If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got no reason to hide.” That adage needs some serious rethinking in a world where the word “wrong” can mean something different to every person.

There are plenty of reasons to want privacy. Maybe you don’t share the same definition of “wrong” as the people in charge. Maybe you just like the principle of privacy. Or maybe you don’t have any reason at all. You want privacy just because.

Think about the way information is passed around on campus. As a community, we do not treat information as something personal that should not be shared without a good reason. We are fine with the University knowing which doors we open. Tigerbook reveals all students’ dorm rooms, roommates, majors, and hometowns.

The right to privacy, which I define as the right to have one’s private information stay private, is far from a Princeton-specific issue. In fact, I believe that the lack of respect for students’ privacy is a result of the way privacy is treated in American culture as a whole.

The U.S. Senate just voted to allow private internet service providers to sell users’ search history without their knowledge or consent. If the bill passes through the House of Representatives and is signed by the President, we potentially face a world where Googling “suicide help” could raise your life insurance rates.

Sidd Bikkannavar, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was forced to unlock his phone for U.S. customs agents when returning from Chile. Privacy rights should not be totally waived just because someone wants to cross the border.

Closer to home, the University tracks every time a student uses their prox. That means that the school knows which buildings you go into, when you are in your room, and where you eat your meals. We wouldn’t be comfortable with the University’s having the right to seize our possessions with no notice. We should be equally concerned about the University seizing our information.

People have a tendency to dismiss a lack of privacy as irrelevant if the person with all the information has no ill will, or if the person exposed is not doing anything wrong. But who decides what constitutes “wrong?”

If the University decides that too many students are propping their doors, they could analyze the data to find students that haven’t proxed into their rooms for a while and then send inspectors to check those doors.

If the government decides that not just Muslims should be banned from the country, but anyone who dares to befriend them, then a customs agent could scroll through your Facebook pictures to make sure you aren’t friends with any “bad dudes.”

The modern era is sometimes called the Information Age as an acknowledgment that, while physical goods still have value, information is the new currency. Think about the number of tech startups that don’t make tangible goods, but just trade in information of one kind of another.

No one would say that you shouldn’t lock away your stuff if it isn’t worth stealing. Yes, it is unlikely that someone wants to steal my old chair out of my dorm room. But I’m still allowed to lock my front door.

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Information is the same. Even if it’s worthless, it’s still personal. Having someone else know your information is the same as someone else using my chair when I’m not around. It doesn’t hurt me in any way, but a reasonable person should still take issue with it.

Most of us don’t have anything to hide. Even though I also don’t have much worth stealing, I’m still allowed to lock my door. We should treat information privacy the same way.

Beni Snow is a mechanical and aerospace engineering major from Newton Center, Mass. He can be reached at bsnow@princeton.edu.

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