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Some Scattered Thoughts on Privacy

June 30, 2013

There’s been a lot in the news lately about government surveillance. This, in addition to the privacy concerns we’ve already had about online tracking, big data, and…well…the government surveillance we already knew about. I’m still getting my head around this, and I don’t consider myself an expert in the subject by any means, but I’d like to share a few things that have occurred to me.

To be clear, don’t look for a rigorously defended thesis here. I’m just thinking out loud here. Feel free to let me know if you think I’ve overlooked something, because there’s a good chance you’re right.

The first thing that strikes me is that we shouldn’t freak out. We should be upset, yes, but we shouldn’t panic. Panic won’t do anything but make normal people think we’re crazy. When our civil liberties are at stake, we don’t want to sound paranoid.

I also note that human beings shed information like my family’s husky sheds fur. Body language alone speaks volumes. Skilled mentalists can pick up enough from subtle cues in plainly observable behavior that they look like mind-readers. It’s not unlike the much-discussed metadata (phone records, server logs, and the like), which can reveal a huge amount of information. To be sure, some of this information isn’t anyone’s business and we wouldn’t want it to be spread around. On the other hand some of it is information that is impossible to keep to ourselves or that we have no right to expect to be private, no matter how much we want it to be. So once again, I have to say we shouldn’t freak out: Average people who aren’t aware of serious privacy concerns will not be convinced that their rights are in jeopardy if privacy advocates act upset about publicly available information being, well, publicly available. Remember the boy who cried wolf?

I’m not saying that all metadata should be public, of course, or that the fact that it is stored means that it’s okay to share it freely; I’ll address that shortly.

Something else occurred to me while re-reading a passage from The Illustrated Guide to Law‘s criminal procedure comic. In the “Police vs. Privacy” chapter (specifically, this page from the section on search warrants), one of the people who is arrested is told that he doesn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in someone else’s home (at least not without being an overnight guest). I’m not a lawyer, so be sure to read this as just my opinion, but it seems like the reasonable expectation of privacy is being treated as binary: Either you have it or you don’t. But that’s not how privacy really works: People have varying expectations of privacy based on the situation. People hanging out in their backyards expect less privacy than in the house, but more privacy than at the mall.

Similarly, I get the impression that when it comes to information, privacy is taken to mean absolute secrecy, and if you share something with anyone (save maybe your spouse, doctor, lawyer, or priest) then you may as well share it with the evening news. Again, it doesn’t work that way: People will share things with close friends that they wouldn’t share with strangers. This ties into the online tracking debate and the metadata controversy. But it seems intuitive to me that there’s something wrong with maintaining a profile of a person’s every move. It feels like stalking, even if it doesn’t actually involve physically following a person around.

I’m starting to think that it boils down to information not necessarily being secret, but still being the business of some people and not others. To use a brick-and-mortar example, if I go into CVS to buy laxatives, it’s one thing for CVS to know that and quite another for my bank, my insurance company, the NSA, the MPAA, advertisers who put up displays in the store, or my Facebook friends to know it. I don’t claim to know where the line should be drawn, especially if it needs to be drawn in the law—laws tend to have unintended consequences, after all. However, it’s clear to me that “If you’re in public, anything goes” is the wrong answer, especially combined with the attitude that anything online is inherently public.

I also want to point out that just because it’s possible for someone to spy on us doesn’t make it right. On the one hand, if you really want your e-mail to be secure (for example), encrypt it. On the other hand, to say that no one who doesn’t encrypt has any right to privacy is to imply that anyone with the ability to take something therefore has the right to have it, which is wrong for reasons I hope I don’t have to explain. In other words, there’s a difference between the possibility of an invasion of privacy and the lack of any right to privacy.

I could probably rant and rave on this for many more paragraphs, but there would be little point in doing so. These are just a few things I wanted to get off my chest.

By the way, I apologize for the…let’s be polite and say “loose”…nature of this post. I really was working on the deadline thing like I promised last month, and then I ended up having to scrap the entire post because of problems with the original topic.

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Categories: Privacy
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