Whatsappened to privacy?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London

Recorded at the Battle of Ideas festival 2023 on Saturday 28 October at Church House, London.


From intimate selfies to leaking of personal messages, the digital age seems to relentlessly blur the boundaries between private and public. Not only are we encouraged to bare it all for social media, but the idea of private or secret communication is increasingly seen as a cover for all kinds of ‘online harms’. While the UK has backed off (for now) from enforcing Online Safety Bill provisions to remove end-to-end encryption, the widespread suspicion by government of encrypted services remains. What goes on in private group chats or messengers is said to be the site of danger, exploitation and threats to health and security.

But it is not just social media or new laws that seem to threaten privacy. Indeed, official bodies are subject to endless leaks, baring the details of this or that supposedly private meeting or conversation. But perhaps this is no bad thing: debate about crucial issues has been widely informed by the leak of previously private correspondence, such as the over 100,000 messages between former health secretary Matt Hancock and others at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The leak revealed important information about the decisions surrounding lockdowns.

But even if much valuable information was gleaned from the leak, should we be worried about the wider implications of removing the assumption of privacy? For example, many worry that recent charges against former police officers for sharing racist messages in a private WhatsApp group chat upend the principle that what we say ‘behind closed doors’ is a private matter. In a similar vein, the Scottish Government’s recent removal of a ‘dwelling defence’ to a landmark hate-crime bill explicitly invites the courts to police what is said in private. Likewise, many campaigners point to the fact that Britain is one of the most surveilled countries in the world, with the previous privacy of walking the street or meeting friends in a pub now subject to the glare of Big Brother.

But what is so valuable about privacy – and what is at risk if we lose too much of it? Should we welcome the tendency to make everything public, especially if it roots out backward attitudes or exposes those who misuse power? What’s the relationship between the public and private, and where does the balance lie?


Josie Appleton
director, civil liberties group, Manifesto Club; author, Officious: Rise of the Busybody State; writer, Notes on Freedom

David Davis
member of parliament, Conservative Party

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Strangers and Intimates (forthcoming) and Keeping Their Marbles

Tim Stanley
columnist and leader writer, Daily Telegraph; author, Whatever Happened to Tradition? History, Belonging and the Future of the West

Ella Whelan
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; journalist; author, What Women Want