Would you rather be free than safe?

I don’t want to be spied on. Freedom is a basic human right. But surely the government needs certain data to help keep us safe? Hmmm...

What does it mean to be free?

What does being free mean to you? And does being safe mean you have to give up some of your freedom?


Girls with arms stretched as a sign of freedom

Thinking about freedom, let’s take our everyday lives as a starting point.

Most of us have to go to school, college or work each day. But how free are we if we can’t skip this because it’s a nice day outside and we just don’t feel like it?

Can we ever really be free if we can’t do as we wish, whenever we wish? ... Already we’re seeing that freedom comes with strings!

How about teachers, doctors and train/bus drivers… can you imagine if they took a day off whenever they felt like it? Their free choice could actually harm other people.

And what about the freedom, say, to play our music whenever we like, wherever we like and at whatever volume we like? Our freedom may directly spoil someone else’s freedom to enjoy peace and quiet.

How free do you want to be?

It’s tricky. How free do you want to be?

Let’s imagine a school where students were free to do as they please all day long - even perhaps not attend if they didn’t feel up to it. Would that be a good experience for most of the students there?

Taking this a stage further and into the land of fantasy... in the novel ‘Lord Of The Flies’ (by William Golding), a group of young schoolboys were abandoned on a desert island without any adults. Many of them were excited to be free at last. “No grown ups!” says the main character Ralph, dancing in the sand with joy. But the overweight boy with him, who has asthma, really poor eyesight and is cruelly nicknamed 'Piggy', is extremely worried at the idea of no one (responsible) being in charge.

And so where one person sees freedom, another feels fear. So can it be possible to be both free and safe?

This is a puzzle philosophers have been struggling with for a long time. 

Thomas Hobbes is an English philosopher who many people think of as the founder of modern political philosophy. He lived during the times of the English Civil War (1642-1651), which divided the nation as people took opposing sides for and against the monarchy. The country was very unstable for a while which may be why Hobbes came up with the phrase he’s most remembered for: human lives are, “Nasty, brutish and short” - unless you have a central government in place. 

Freedom or safety?

Hobbes' philosophy dominated the 17th century and continues to have an influence today. For Hobbes, the only way humans can get themselves out of the natural state of fear and violence is to give up freedom and make a social contract with others to accept a central authority, a government. So we swap our complete freedom for safety and security.

In other words, as Philosopher Peter Millican (University of Oxford) puts it, to be free means there is nothing to stop you doing what you want. It’s an unfree act if, say, someone has a gun to your head and is forcing you to do something! Our freedoms under a government are somewhere between the two.

Hobbes died in 1679 and the philosopher David Hume was born a few years later in 1711. He said everywhere we were free unless we were prisoners and in chains. So here he compares total freedom with a complete lack of it (i.e. being imprisoned). Even then, says Prof. Millican, there is still some free will: “A prisoner in chains has some freedom - he can rattle his chains!” 

A ball and chain

The prisoner’s freedom

So even when we seem to have all our freedoms removed, we can still exercise some control over how we behave.

This is why some prisoners go on hunger strike - it’s one of the few, if only, ways they have to express their free will. They are freely choosing not to eat.

The suffragettes, campaigning for votes for women in Britain in the first 14 years of the 20th century, used hunger strikes when imprisoned after demonstrations. In the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War (1939-1945), some prisoners committed suicide - a last act of rebellion perhaps so their captors couldn’t kill them. They made that final choice in their lives. Extreme, perhaps. But it does show even in the worst circumstances imaginable, people still have some (very limited) freedom. 

Human lives are, “Nasty, brutish and short” - Thomas Hobbes

Here’s another example... Imagine you work in a bank. You’re responsible for the main safe (where valuable items are kept). A gang takes your family hostage, proves to you that they have them, and demands you open the safe. What are you going to do?

“In this situation, unless I open the safe, my family is going to get killed. What do I do? I’m clearly being forced to do something I don’t of my free will want to do. But even then, I do still have a choice. I could choose not to open the safe but of course, I do. I would choose undoubtedly to open it,” says Prof. Millican.

But can you imagine a reason why you might not open the safe? “Suppose the safe contains a nuclear weapon? It’s a very tough situation but to save many others, sadly the family has to die. If it was mere money in there, I would open the safe definitely,” he says.

Willingly giving up some freedom

To keep everyone safe yet still allow people to live as freely as possible is one of the most difficult challenges a government faces.

This is what Hobbes meant by us giving up some freedom in order to be safe. Otherwise, we would face "nasty, short, brutal lives" forever living in fear of the freedom others could exercise over us. What we mean by this is that without a government and police force to protect us, there would be chaos out of which the strongest people would almost definitely force their way into taking charge and they could, and probably would push the weak, sick, young and old around.

Under this, most of us wouldn’t really be free at all - unless we were the strong ones barking out orders to everyone! And even then, we would always know that someone stronger can come along at any minute and take our power away.

A government, however, in theory, looks after everyone’s freedoms; not just the strongest.

What feeling do you get in your stomach at the thought of no teachers, no parents, no government, no police? No one in charge? How free do you want to be - bearing in mind the freedoms you have will also be shared by others around you? How free do you think Piggy was on that island in 'Lord of the Flies'?

This article makes reference to a podcast by Professor Peter Millican. You can watch this resource in full on the University of Oxford's Podcasts site. 

Crazy health and safety laws

10 human rights that give us freedom

  1. The right to life
    1. After World War II, which led to the death of nearly 60 million people and the genocide of 6 million Jewish people, it became clear that human life had to be protected. In 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, the right to life became the only foundational right, i.e. the right on which all other human rights depend. So we all have the right to life and to have our life protected – regardless of our background, gender, or age. All states are represented by governments and other institutions, which must ensure that we’re safe from killings, harms, and even from anything that could lower our life expectancy. So in the case of women living with violent husbands, they have the right to state protection to ensure they are safe. The government must also enforce an effective legal and administrative framework to put off potential criminals and punish them if they commit illegal acts. But there’s an exception to this rule. Currently, 57 states/countries around the world have the power to execute people. In democratic countries such as the USA, execution is a punishment for the most serious crimes e.g. murder. But in countries such as China, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, the death penalty is used for much smaller offences or for speaking against the government. Interestingly, this right does not include the right to decide when to die. What do you think of that? Should people who want to die also have a right to decide when?
  2. The right to freedom from slavery and torture
    1. Protection from slavery and torture are so-called absolute rights. This means that there are no possible circumstances where it is rightful or legitimate to enslave or torture a person. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written in 1948, both slavery and torture were a big concern because of the Nazi camps of World War II and American history with slavery. Slavery essentially means using a person for services or labour without payment and without the permission of that person. Torture means to harm and injure another person with the aim of causing them pain and suffering. Unfortunately, slavery and torture still takes place in certain parts of the world. In particular, illegal migrants often fall prey to criminal gangs that turn them into labour slaves. In a strange case in 2008, eight princesses from the United Arab Emirates were accused of smuggling their servants to Belgium and forcing them to serve without pay, food, or proper accommodation. One of the servants escaped and reported the case - it has since gone to trial. 
  3. The right to equal treatment before the law 
    1. Everyone should be treated the same by the law. We often call this the ‘rule of law’. This means that after committing a crime, everyone should be tried under the same conditions and have the right to be heard at a court. No one should be ‘above the law’ i.e. be given special treatment. The right to a fair legal process is a key part of this freedom, which is why the government provides some free legal guidance to everyone. In reality, many vulnerable groups (such as migrants, minorities, or in some countries, women) get worse treatment. For example, researchers have studied how public juries in US courts work. They found that African Americans were more likely to be sentenced and receive higher punishments. They suggested this was likely because of existing biases against African Americans. We have to question whether equality before the law exists in such cases. Also, having a good lawyer can be a key factor in winning or losing a legal battle. But good lawyers tend to be expensive and not affordable to everyone. 
  4. The right to liberty and protection from illegal arrest
    1. Our liberty – the state of being free from abuse and the control of other people– is a key human right. This allows us to move freely, succeed, and work. Of course, this right has its limits. We have to respect people’s private property and the migration regulations in a country. For example, you couldn’t just walk into someone’s house or garden without their permission, or go and live in another country without following certain procedures. Keeping a person in one place is also reasonable when a person has committed a crime or could spread an infectious disease. Beyond this, no one can be arrested or held without appropriate legal reasons. Recently, the Turkish authorities arrested thousands of citizens who they believed to be associated with the attempt to overthrow the government in July 2016. But the authorities didn’t provide any evidence to support their claims. Their imprisonment clearly went against their human rights. But even in the UK, the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act – passed after the 9/11 terror attack in the US – broke the right to liberty. Any foreign person who was suspected of terrorism could be imprisoned without charge or trial for an unknown length of time. In this case, the House of Lords got involved and the law was later abolished. But the right to liberty is currently again on the table after UK Prime Minster, Theresa May suggested that all potential suspects of radicalization could be arrested without evidence. Could this action be justified?
  5. The right to privacy
    1. Our privacy and family life must be respected as personal and confidential. States, institutions, and other people have no right to interfere with this right by opening our letters, unlawfully watching or entering our houses, listening to our conversations, telling us whom to marry, or stopping us from starting a family. We also have a right to decide which information we share with others – including our sexuality or religious views. This isn’t the situation in all countries as in some (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or Pakistan) women can be forced into marriage with people they don’t want to marry. But today – in the age of digital technologies and social media – the state often interferes with this right. In many cases – when public safety is in danger and when the police have a suspicion that someone is plotting a crime or a terrorist attack, this right can be taken away. For example, when other people’s lives are in danger, our privacy is removed and the police and intelligence agencies can monitor our conversations. With the increasing number of terrorist attacks around the world, this has given several countries more reasons to limit this right. The well-known slogan from George Orwell’s book 1984 - ‘The Big Brother is Watching You’ - is becoming more and more relevant as several countries – and even private companies – argue that public security is more important than an individual’s privacy. What do you think?
  6. The right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion
    1. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion allows us to practise our religion and beliefs both in public and at home. It also gives us the right to change our religion or to have none at all. We’re also free to pray and follow religious traditions. But in some cases – when it’s in the public interest or when it’s against the rights and freedoms of others – religious practices and symbols can be forbidden in public. For example, some countries (e.g. France, the Netherlands, and Belgium) have forbidden women to wear the Islamic veil covering face with the argument that it prevents security forces from being able to easily recognise people’s identities. They argue this endangers security and is against the public interest - but not everyone agrees. This freedom can also clash with traditional practices in some countries, which follow religious practices that clash with our other rights – such as the right to liberty or even life. For example, in some communities in Afghanistan – despite existing Afghan laws prohibiting this practice, there has been a tradition of giving Afghan women away to pay for the crimes of their families (called baad). Instead of paying a fine or going to prison, families can offer their daughter or wives as compensation to those whom they harmed. Other countries have chosen not to recognise the freedom of religion outright. Saudi Arabia never signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Why? Because it only recognizes Islam and no other religions (but as a member of the UN, it still needs to respect it!).
  7. The right to freedom of speech and the press
    1. This right means we can think and openly share our views in public without fear of retaliation (a negative response or punishment) from the government. We can express our disagreement with a political/social policy, rule, a politician, and so on without any fear that we would be persecuted. Newspapers, TV programmes and other media can share information and ideas free from censorship by the government. This right protects journalists – and their sources – from government persecution. But there are several limits to these freedoms. For example, encouraging terrorism or other crimes, or publishing sexually explicit photos of children is illegal. Also, we can’t publicly try to ruin the reputation of other people without evidence (this is called slander). In some countries – such as Germany, France, and Poland – it’s illegal to deny certain crimes such as the Holocaust during World War II. Many people question the extent to which we should be free to say what we want. We live in an age where anyone can write anything on social media and share this with thousands of people globally within seconds - sometimes this can be harmful. It may spread false information or encourage hatred towards certain groups and communities. But sometimes this freedom can be used for good e.g. creating positive awareness about an important cause such as gender equality or sharing news on an event as it happens. What do you think?   
  8. The right to take part in the government of your country
    1. When we reach adulthood (in the UK this is 18), we automatically gain our right to vote (called suffrage). This gives us a say in how the country is run. Every citizen –irrespective of their race and gender – must have this right, which is called universal suffrage. Historically, people could not vote either because they did not have enough property or land (in the 19th century) or because they were women. The first country to allow women to vote was New Zealand (in 1893) and the last one was Saudi Arabia (in 2015!). In 1918, the UK allowed women over the age of 30 to vote (and 1928 all adult women). Each country also has specific guidelines about who can be a politician and run for government – this usually relates to their age or the number of supporters. Again, no one should be excluded from this opportunity. But for example, in Russia, parliamentary candidates have been struck off electoral lists because the authorities claimed they could not speak Russian, which was not true. In Bosnia, members of certain minority groups can’t run for top political positions because only Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs are allowed. 
  9. The right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association
    1. The right to assemble peacefully, protest, and gather in organisations is closely linked to the freedom of speech. Non-violent protests are a form of sharing our views with others and in particular, those in power. ‘Assembly’ can mean marches and demonstrations, conferences, public and private meetings, counter-demonstrations, ‘sit-ins’ and strikes. Governments must do everything they can to ensure people choose to protest peacefully even if they disagree with the protestors’ views. The only exceptions are when the government believes that our protests could lead to violence and endanger security. For example, the US movement Black Lives Matter has involved violence, but as a result of clashes between the police and the protestors, not as an intention of the protestors. But this right is often disrespected. Even in the UK, there were cases when the police did not provide enough facilities or put in physical barriers to prevent people from demonstrating. This right also allows us to set up political parties, unions, non-government organisations and even Facebook and online groups. But these associations should not restrict the rights of other people. So, for example, in Bulgaria, several online groups were banned because they were spreading extremism, some calling for the death of Muslims. But others – that were not extreme – were also banned with the same – but faulty – reasoning.  
  10. The right to education
    1. Education is a key right that allows us to develop our skills and ability to understand the world around us. No one can be denied the right to educate themselves nor discriminated against when applying to attend particular schools. For example, children with learning disabilities must be able to exercise this right in the same way as all other students. This right does not mean that everyone must be accepted to every school. Schools can decide what their admission criteria are – as long as they do not break other rights. Parents can also choose which schools their children should attend, especially if they want their children to get religious education. Basic education – i.e. at the elementary level – should be free so that everyone can attend. Although you may think that everyone goes to school, up to 120 million children do not! This is because of several factors which include wars or emergencies such as in Syria, discrimination against religious or ethnic groups such as in Saudi Arabia or China, or even high fees such as in South Africa or Bangladesh. 

Should we all have ID cards?

One suggestion to help improve public safety is for everyone to carry identification (ID) cards. This video explores the arguments for and against this controversial idea. What do you think? 


The UK is the country under the most surveillance in the world, averaging at one CCTV camera for every 11 people (that’s 5.9 million CCTV cameras).

The UK is the country under the most surveillance in the world, averaging at one CCTV camera for every 11 people (that’s 5.9 million CCTV cameras).

Freedom = fear

Is giving up some of your freedoms a fair price to pay to live in a secure society? Find out in this short video narrated by Harry Shearer and scripted by Professor Nigel Warburton (The Open University).


5 things about cybersecurity and its role in our digital world

  1. What actually is cybersecurity?
    1. You’ve probably seen cybersecurity in TV and films. We watch spies breaking networks to steal the nuclear launch codes. We marvel at hoodie-wearing hackers working from their parents’ basements. But security is far more common than that – it affects each one of us every day. Cybersecurity is logging off Facebook before your friends ruin your profile. Cybersecurity is changing your passwords after leaving that clingy ex. It’s all about protecting the confidentiality, integrity and availability of your data. This might sound complex, but it’s actually quite simple. Firstly, we want secret things to stay secret. You wouldn’t want your Snapchats shared online, would you? Secondly, we want to ensure data is not damaged. You might want your Instagram to be public, but you don’t want people deleting the images. Finally, we want data to be available to the right people. Your phone would be secure if you smashed it – nobody could steal its contents. But if you can’t access your own data, then what’s the point? Cybersecurity comes down to keeping the bad guys out while letting the good guys in.
  2. What does it do?
    1. Hacks are on the increase, affecting companies, governments and celebrities. Have you watched the 2014 movie, The Interview? Apparently, this film led North Korea to attack Sony, resulting in $35m of damage. Employees ripped Internet cables out of their computers and reverted to pen and paper during the crisis. The Stuxnet worm sounds even more like an action movie. This virus attacked nuclear power stations, causing machines to spin out of control. This has been claimed to have set back Iran’s nuclear weapons programme by three years. In conventional politics, the US election was marked by leaked emails. Since the messages were damaging to Hillary Clinton, many believe they helped Trump to victory. Even Hollywood celebrities are targeted by cyber-attacks. Jennifer Lawrence fell victim to Celebgate, where dozens of her iCloud photos were leaked online. Every day it seems like more things are being hacked, from apps to smart TVs, phones to driverless cars. Cybersecurity is the only thing standing in the way of these attacks.
  3. Why should we care?
    1. But what if we’re not celebrities, executives or politicians? Why would a criminal want to steal our data? The truth is, hackers don’t really care who you are. Your bank account is perfect if they can take some money. Your email might not seem important, but criminals need addresses to distribute their spam. Even your Facebook and Twitter can be valuable to fraudsters. These scammers ask your friends for money, all while hiding behind your identity. A US report found that 73% of the public have fallen victim to cybercrime. This can range from phishing attacks (where emails lead you to fake sites) to aggressive new “ransomware”. Imagine your most important files being locked and then being charged £500 to get them back. Now imagine that happening to your local hospital. With 30% of NHS Trusts hit by such attacks, hacks can place real lives at risk.
  4. Why is it hard?
    1. After all this talk of danger, why hasn’t it been solved? Surely the brightest minds have tackled this problem? Cybersecurity is hard for many reasons, and that’s why everyone needs to care for their data. It doesn’t help that the Internet was a big mistake. Networks in the 1960s were used to connect universities, not billions of people. Engineers couldn’t imagine our range of modern applications, and therefore security was never built in. It’s also far harder to defend a computer than to attack it. While we have to make sure everything is totally secure, hackers just need to find one mistake. And since we sometimes choose “password123” for our accounts, we can be the weakest link. Finally, cybersecurity must be balanced against other goals. We might want our online banking to be confidential, but what about communications? Privacy might protect the most vulnerable in our society, but it also hides the actions of criminals. To ensure our Internet remains both free and secure, we must make tough decisions.
  5. What can we do?
    1. So how can we protect ourselves against these attacks? The facts are simple – hackers are lazy and have millions of targets. If we can make ourselves slightly more secure, we’re not worth their effort. While experts might suggest complex tasks, we can protect ourselves with three simple steps. Now we hear it all the time, but passwords are really important. A hacker doesn’t need to know your cat’s name – they just try all the possible combinations. That means if your password is “fluffy”, it can be broken in under ONE second. If we choose longer passwords with non-letter characters (s3cr3tpa$$word), they are far harder to crack. We seem to be hounded by software updates, whether on our phones, tablets or computers. But these downloads fix software bugs, greatly improving our security. They also add new features to our favourite apps, so we should avoid being left behind. Finally, if it looks too good to be true, it usually is! If a rich prince wants to send you his money, it’s probably a scam. Be careful with links and email attachments – this is how hackers steal most of our cash. It pays to be cautious online – this is how the good guys win and the bad guys lose.


Would you rather be free than safe?

  • Protecting private data

    If the government wanted everyone to have ID cards, they would have to collect lots of personal data. In the age of frequent cyber-attacks, particularly on huge organisations like the NHS, how do we know that this private information would be kept safe from criminals? Personal data is used by identity thefts who pretend to be someone else so they can use their money, apply for credit cards and mortgages in their name, and even commit crimes as another person. In the wrong hands, private, personal information can be dangerous.

  • Catching criminals

    We might want our online banking to be confidential but what about communications? We don’t like the idea of the government reading our private messages but online privacy can hide the actions of criminals. If the government was able to track the movements and plans of potential criminals, particularly terrorist organisations, would it really matter if they could see your funny cat GIFs or Saturday night plans on the group chat?

  • Speaking your mind

    The right to freedom of speech is one of the most controversial human rights but it can be used for good. For example, everyone is able to spread positive awareness about an important cause such as gender or racial equality, and we can share news on an event as it happens. This plays an important role in keeping us safe. In countries like the UK and the USA, where everyone has access to the internet, we're made aware of threatening events as they occur, and can take action to keep ourselves out of danger. 

  • Safety first

    Imagine if teachers, doctors and firefighters took a day off whenever they felt like it! Their free choice could actually harm other people. Although many of us like the idea of being completely free, the reality could be very different. In William Golding’s novel, ‘Lord of the Flies’, things descended into chaos because there was no structure and no one took responsibility for their actions. There are certain people in society, like doctors and police officers, who give up certain freedoms (like staying in bed all day whenever they want!) in order to keep everyone else safe.

  • Expressing yourself

    Everyone has the right to think freely and follow whichever religion they choose. But in some countries (e.g. France, the Netherlands, and Belgium), women are forbidden to wear the Islamic veil covering their face with the argument that it prevents security forces from being able to easily recognise people’s identities. If governments are able to dictate how we dress, won’t we lose our personal identity?

  • Looking out for the little guys

    Thomas Hobbes said that we should give up some freedom in order to be safe. Otherwise, we would face "nasty, short, brutal lives" forever living in fear from the freedom others could exercise over us. What this means is that without a government and police force to protect us, there would be chaos out of which the strongest people would almost definitely force their way into taking charge and they could, and probably would push the weak, sick, young and old around.