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The Privacy Illusion

It has come to my attention that many of my readers in the United States believe they have the right to privacy because of something in the Constitution. That is an unsupportable view. A more accurate view is that the government divides the details of your life into two categories:

1.       Stuff they don't care about.
2.       Stuff they can find out if they have a reason.

Keep in mind that the government already knows the following things about you:

1.       Where you live
2.       Your name
3.       Your income
4.       Your age
5.       Your family members
6.       Your social security number
7.       Your maiden name
8.       Where you were born
9.       Criminal history of your family
10.   Your own criminal record
11.   Your driving record
12.   Your ethnicity
13.   Where you work and where you used to work
14.   Where you live and where you used to live
15.   Names of your family members
16.   The value of your home now
17.   The amount you paid for your home
18.   The amount you owe on your home
19.   Your grades in school
20.   Your weight, height, eye color, and hair color

The government doesn't know your medical history. But your doctor does, and he'll give it to the government if they produce a warrant.

The government doesn't know your spending details. But your bank and your credit card company do. And the government can subpoena bank records anytime it cares enough to do so. The government can't always watch you pay for stuff with cash, but don't expect that to last. At some point in the next twenty years, physical currency will be eliminated in favor of digital transactions.

Your government doesn't know who you are having sex with, but only because it doesn't care. If the government started to care, perhaps because it suspected you of a crime, it could get warrants to check your email, text messages, phone records, and online dating account. It could also make your lover testify about your sexual preferences and practices. It did exactly that with Bill Clinton. Thanks to the government, I know Bill Clinton's penis has a bend in it.

When you're in any populated place, there's a good chance that video surveillance cameras are recording your every move. The government can examine those recordings anytime it produces a warrant. Some of those public cameras reportedly use FBI software for facial recognition.

In California, I have a device that allows me to go through toll booths without paying cash. It sits on my windshield and communicates with the toll booth which then charges my credit card. That means the government can know whenever I cross a bridge, if they care. You might not have one of those devices on your windshield, but I'll bet your toll booth is taking a picture of your license plate as you drive through. If the government needs to know where you've been, it has a lot of options.

Realistically, you can't lose your privacy to Big Brother because you already lost it decades ago. What you do have is the right to be boring and law-abiding at the same time. It just feels like privacy to you.

I'm overstating the case a bit.  To be fair, you do have the right to take a dump with your bathroom door closed. You can also expect some privacy with your lawyer and your therapist. These minor exceptions are the crumbs that remain of your so-called right to privacy. And those crumbs remain because the government doesn't care about them. The government controls the most ferocious military power in the history of civilization and it knows where you live; it doesn't also need to know you have mommy issues.

Whenever I write on the topic of how our future will be awesome if only we would agree to transmit our personal-but-boring information - such as our physical locations - to a central database, I hear screams of BIG BROTHER! BIG BROTHER!

This fascinates me because I believe the phrase Big Brother has taken on some kind of meaning in our collective consciousness that is now long divorced from reason. If citizens had any substantial privacy now, it would make perfect sense to discuss the risks of trading that privacy for economic gain or convenience. But that's like arguing whether humans should take the risk of domesticating dogs; it's already ancient history. Sure, some people got mauled to death by dogs over the years, but canine domestication mostly worked out.

All reasonable people would agree that governments will abuse power. But have you ever had a problem that was caused by the government invading your privacy? Meanwhile, you enjoy the fact that your email works, thanks to a central database that stores your email routing information and another that stores your messages in the cloud. It's all there for Big Brother to see anytime he asks for a warrant. That's a tradeoff that has worked so far.

The Big Brother concept seems a lot like the bogey man. It isn't a real risk to law-abiding citizens; it just feels like one. Some would argue that while the government of the United States in its current form is unlikely to flagrantly abuse your private information and get away with it for long, that situation could change, as it did in Hitler's Germany. I would counter by noting that any argument that uses a Hitler analogy is self-refuting.

For the benefit of the absolutists reading this, I will agree that the odds of the U.S. Government becoming Nazi-like are non-zero. But you have the same odds of being hit by a meteor, and you don't modify your life to avoid meteors. Likewise, you probably shouldn't modify your life because you fear the government might go Nazi. Just relax, enjoy the promise of technology, and stop worrying about Big Brother. Realistically, he's been ass-raping you for years, and apparently he's not sufficiently endowed for you to have noticed. I don't see that situation changing.

I won't take any more of your time because today is election-day in America. If you are an adult citizen of the United States, and you already gave Big Brother your personal information when you registered, he wants to know more about your preferences in the voting booth.

Unless you think that's too risky, Hitler-wise.


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Jan 11, 2013
I was always puzzled when working as a voting list enumerator on a 1-800 line when someone would call to say I want my name off the voting list as it's an invasion of privacy. The first step in removing your name is to verify who you are before I can I find the right entry in the actual voting list. They didn't like being asked to prove who they were. And if you could get past that then I had to put their name on another "list" to ensure we didn't accidentally put you back on the voting list when we compile data from other sources like driver's licence records.
Nov 11, 2012
One of your best blog entries
Nov 9, 2012

We don't have to stretch our imaginations too far to envision the kind of thing you're talking about here. Not too long ago Genarlow Wilson, a 17-year-old in Georgia, was caught up in the national sexual predator witch hunt. Yes, 'witch hunt' is the word; Genarlow's crime was that he had had consensual sex with a 15-year-old (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21488038/). Even if you believe that was wrong the practical effect of his conviction was that he would have had to register as a sex offender, effectively ending any chance at an ordinary life. His story has a 'happy' ending though; his conviction was overturned after several years in prison. But others guilty of similarly non-threatening offenses currently find it virtually impossible to find a job, get off the streets, etc. thanks to the government.

The point is if you think we've gotten over the witch hunt mentality think again. See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1196112/ for further illumination.
Nov 9, 2012
Rather than using the Hitler analogy, a McCarthy one is much better - it actually happened in the USA and could easily happen again when the paranoia level gets high enough. Would the witch hunt be much worse using modern technology than it was in the 50's? They could use the toll booth crossing info to say that certain people _may_ have been at a communist meeting, and at that time the suspicion was enough to get you fired and blacklisted.

[McCarthyism won't happen again for the same reason we won't start burning witches again. Both approaches are too thoroughly discredited by history. If there's a risk to having less privacy, it's probably something new and unpredictable.

And keep in mind that McCarthy didn't have real information. He was bluffing. A lack of privacy would have made his bogus accusations harder to stick, not easier. -- Scott]
Nov 8, 2012

Ignore the part where I said you were missing the point : )
Nov 8, 2012

You're missing Delius's point. The powerful only get to enforce their will with impunity if they get to keep their "privacy" while the rest don't. Just like a spammer is able to spam because his actions cannot be traced back to him.

As soon as malicious actions can be traced back to the person performing them or somehow make them accountable, then you level the playing field. This is exactly what happened in the war between BlueSecurity Inc and spammers (check BlueFrog on Wikipedia). It hit spammers so bad they threatened to take the entire internet hostage.
Nov 8, 2012
[until we can guarantee the powerful are the good guys, we NEED privacy]

Never gonna happen. The powerful are always gonna be the guys who want power enough to bad stuff for it.
Nov 8, 2012

A general increase in information helps the powerless. (why you say china doesnt want info explosion)

A strategic increase in information helps the recipient alone.

Ending privacy for citizens while keeping it for leaders/enforcers would have an easily forseeable singular outcome.

If EVERYONE had a webcam attached to their head and streamed video/audio to publicly available internet it might work how you imagine.

guaranteed congress would never go for it. when they wanted to break the law they would just say its national security and their stream goes down. :(

privacy protects the weak. ending privacy means the powerful can enforce their will to an alarming degree. how naive and gullible do you have to be to think the powerful in USA are the good guys? they are the ones ruining the economy and trampling on civil liberty.

until we can guarantee the powerful are the good guys, we NEED privacy.we are NOWHERE near that guarantee. even if you are a repub/dem ideologue, every 4 years the chance exists for the "bad" guy to be powerful. we need privacy from these hacks.
Nov 8, 2012

I guess I'd agree that we don't care much about the 4th amendment... nor the rest of the bill of rights, really. We pay a lot of lip service to the 1st amendment, and almost half the country believes in the 2nd, but although these are all of our legally codified rights, most people don't consider most of these things actual "rights." The 5th amendment would appear to make any form of wire tapping or recording devices illegal in the phrase "cannot be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself". And, of course, we completely and utterly ignore the 9th and 10th.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 8, 2012
To a degree this can work both ways.

If have a reasonable idea where snooping happens then dilute your real activity with *reverse spam*.

Heres one for a Scott Startup - an App that fills and connects to search engine inquiries randomly throughout the day. Where did I really go on the web? Hard to say. It could also wreck havoc with targeted ads based on seaches, although that may be more humorous than valuable.

You certainly cannot stop data collection, but you can manipulate and dilute what is gathered.
Nov 8, 2012

I know who sends me all that junk mail. Doesn't help. Knowing who sends me all that spam wouldn't be any better.

How, exactly, would having your full information available to identity thieves make their job harder?

China doesn't want Google there because Google has a problem handing information on political dissenters over to the government.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 8, 2012
[Realistically, he's been ass-raping you for years, and apparently he's not sufficiently endowed for you to have noticed. - Scott]

Another great post. I had a similar conversation with my friend who took down his Facebook profile and did not want to use Google for anything because they could acquire information about his whereabouts and shopping preferences.

Next time, I will certainly use your line above. It is one of the best you've written. Ever. I laughed for several minutes...
Nov 8, 2012
Drowlord, I agree with you about the 4th amendment.

Here's the problem, with today's america I think it'd be pretty easy for someone to make the claim that snooping on you in an unintrusive manner, say your PC which is connected to the internet and the camera on your laptop that's on anyways, is not unreasonable and get away with it. I could make a case that we aren't in an america that cares about the 4th amendment all that very much. Context is king and while I don't believe in a flexible or living constitution, I think that enough of our society does.

Should we have a right to privacy? Yes, but it and its limits need to be explicitly stated. Does our society care? With a convincing lie or a catchy slogan, I doubt it.

delius, money is the root of all evil so I would think the money potential would lead MS to incorporating their patent into future versions of windows if metro doesn't have it already.
Nov 8, 2012

These a great points.
Instead of focusing on what we have to give up (privacy), we should be focusing on what we could have more of (transparency). That's something we definitely don't have enough of.

And besides, we shouldn't forget that we still have Scotts guardian-nuns to protect us.
Nov 8, 2012
[ Once upon a time the government did care about this. Or at least had laws against some kinds of sex. Maybe it still does in some places. I can't help thinking one of the big reasons thats going away is its too much trouble for the government to find this out. Which means if the government gets the ability to determine this easily we could very well see a resurgence of such laws AND the ability to enforce them! ]

The exact opposite is more likely. More information goes hand-in-hand with better education an more social awareness, which are the directly opposed to bigotry and bigoted laws. Why do you think China doesn't want Google operating there? Show me one place in the world where an increase in information and education has EVER led to more government oppression. Government oppression, like all criminal behavior, flourishes the best in the dark.

[ Right now anyone who has your tax return can steal your identity. Until a few years ago having an unlisted number didn't protect you from getting a flood of telemarketing calls, and even now with the do not call register there are ways certain telemarketers can legally reach you. At least half the mail and e-mail I receive is junk advertisements. And all this and more in a world where there are limits to who has your information. I don't want to live in a world where everyone has access to all my information. ]

Now I think you're just !$%*!$%* with me. The reason why you get so much junk mail isn't too much information, it's too LITTLE information -- specifically, the inability for you to identify who is sending it. And as far as telemarketers go, did it not occur to you that the very thing that enables the "Do Not Call" list to function at all is that we can now better tell who is calling who? If you were a telemarketer, and there was zero risk of you being punished for ignoring the Do Not Call list, I'm pretty sure you would ignore it.

Identify theft is bad, no doubt, but the only reason it works is because the thief is able to impersonate his victim without fear of being discovered because a profile is, at best, a rough analog of the person it supposedly represents. That's what identity thieves count on. You know those silly questions like "who was your first grade teacher"? Their only purpose is to generate a more personalized profile of you, to try to identify you more uniquely. If all your information was available, though, you would already be identified as uniquely as possible. Having *some* information out there makes identity theft easier; *full* information would make it nearly impossible.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 8, 2012
Actually, I use lavabit e-mail. My e-mail is encrypted to my passphrase on the server. If the government wants my e-mail, they're going to need a supercomputer and a hundred years or so.

There are a lot of legitimate needs for privacy. For example, all governments have a stake in shielding themselves from accountability. For example, wikileaks, through posting the "Collateral Murder" video, was directly responsible for ending the Iraq war, because the Iraqi parliament, after seeing the video, refused the Obama administration's request to extend the Status of Forces Agreement which kept troops in the country.

We're going to need more organizations dedicated to making the government transparent, and that means hiding from them. The more encryption you use - secure e-mail, Tor browsers, encrypted VoIP, the more normalized these become, and the harder it is for the government to know who is transmitting important information, and who is looking at very secure pictures of cats jumping in a box.
Nov 8, 2012
[I am here to learn. Please educate me on the many ways that democratically elected governments have abused citizen privacy AND GOT AWAY WITH IT to the great detriment of those citizens. At least one of your examples should be more important than, for example, winning WWII, which required enlistees to give up their privacy and turned out well for our side. -- Scott]

I assume you read the news a lot, and hopefully all the news, not just certain areas. I assume you've been reading the news for many years and have at least a passing knowledge of history.

Russia has been, "democratically!", extremely, rapidly heading straight back, not just to the pre-iron curtain 80's, but back to a Stalinist state (I would say they are already very close). It's terribly sad; I think most Russians, like most people, are good, and I think they know exactly what is happening, but I don't think they know how to stop or reverse it and honestly I can't think of any suggestions.

I think that China is scary because of how effective their govt makes them (you are a big admirer, are you not?) but precisely because their population is abused and controlled (which you don't seem to think is so bad). I think that in the long run the US power mongers have and will absolutely use methods against our principles of freedom in order to be competitive.

In theory China holds elections, but I don't hold any stock in them, who would? I agree with you that China is ruthlessly efficient but the illusion of democracy is just a tool to soothe the masses, much like it is in America. In fact I'm pretty sure the "democratic elections" held in most countries on Earth are demonstrably corrupt, so I will refer to the earlier commenter who asked why democracy has to be a qualifier for the abuse of privacy?
Nov 8, 2012
I have learned a lot about the law and the constitution over the years, not just from the armchair but my own and others' personal experience. It seems very clear to me that the founding fathers did not intend for everyone to be caught for every crime, in fact quite they very strongly enforced the opposite. The constitution and bill of rights apparently intend that no one should be persecuted unless egregious violation warrants it, particular if the "crime" is victimless, as most are. I have found that judges and lawyers are stringently solid in their backing of this principle, and even police will always grudgingly acknowledge that the constitutional principle is "don't get caught".

This makes perfect sense when you consider that not only is most "crime" victimless but the law is extremely fluid and persecution and punishment are more often than not unpredictable and arbitrary, not to mention vindictive almost whenever possible. Those in power, down to the smallest position, will tend to use the easiest method to deal with those who disagree with them (not even just politicians and tyrants, but power held by any means - workplace, family, neighborhood, etc).

Scott, I am quite certain that you, like almost every citizen, has technically broken numerous laws numerous times. The reason all of us aren't in jail is because of privacy granted by the constitution (well not to mention it's infeasible, but to believe that's the only reason you aren't in jail is terrifying).

The fact is that, regardless of what crap laws are passed, we can in fact do whatever we want in privacy as long as it doesn't harm others and we don't get caught. I don't think anyone disagrees with this except an unfortunate number of politicians and the "moral majority" (who I don't believe are any kind of majority, they just make a lot of noise).

Beyond criminal law and those in power, our society has such a ridiculously vast amount of coded rules and regulations that it is practically impossible to follow to the letter. Without privacy it becomes even more trivial than it already is for other citizens to make your life a living heck. Most people have been on the receiving end of this at some point in life and should recognize the danger.
Nov 8, 2012
I think you need to bone up on high-end science fiction, particularly all the classic authors. It's a fantastically valuable predictor of what can, has, and will happen. 1984 is just one example, but it sure is an excellent example. You absolutely cannot deny that its "fictional" world is horrible, and yet we have seen many things straight out of that novel happen around the world since it came out, and continue. We are all always in danger. It is absolutely correct and vital for people to shout "Big Brother!" and challenge it always. Human nature doesn't change, and human abuses of technology and other humans doesn't change; as technology marches forward we cannot be too vigilant.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 7, 2012
"I am here to learn. Please educate me on the many ways that democratically elected governments have abused citizen privacy AND GOT AWAY WITH IT to the great detriment of those citizens."

O.K. Hitler got elected democratically, at first. You did know that, I assume. Now ofcourse you can argue that he didn't get away with it in the long run, but the damage that was done untill that happened was enough to take precautions that it doesn't happen again.

After that it was the GDR. They were not democratically elected, I'll grant you that, but why is that a criterium anyway?

You can get rid of privacy now, and them there might come a government IN THE FUTURE that abuses the situation.

And there are many ways in which corporations or private citizens can abuse your information. If you can't imagine them, here are some examples (scroll down a bit, think alcoholic, aids):
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