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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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Nov 7, 2012
@delius1967

[The worst thing I can imagine happening is that some theoretical future employer declines to hire me because they view something in my past as a risk. But so what? I'm a Libertarian, and I think employers SHOULD be able to do that, if they want. If they are correct in assessing my problems as a liability to their business, more power to them. And if they are wrong, well, they just hurt their ability to compete in the marketplace. Darwinian motivations will take care of this.]

That sort of thinking works well enough in a full employment situation. In other situations the result is to make people who tick off a former creditor, are a victim of identity theft, got sent to prison over one of our stupider laws, etc. unemployable and destined for homelessness.

[To me, privacy isn't keeping people from learning my favorite sexual position, it is the freedom for my wife and I to make that sweet, sweet love without anyone watching or interfering because they think it is immoral for two people to be doing it like... whoops.]

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!

[What do I care if the government -- or anyone, for that matter -- knows what my medical history is?]

Im sure if I were a dedicated crook and had your name and address as well I could think of something. 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.
 
 
Nov 7, 2012
Frankly, I never understood the big hoopla about privacy to begin with. What do I care if the government -- or anyone, for that matter -- knows what my medical history is? What exactly are they going to do with that information?

The worst thing I can imagine happening is that some theoretical future employer declines to hire me because they view something in my past as a risk. But so what? I'm a Libertarian, and I think employers SHOULD be able to do that, if they want. If they are correct in assessing my problems as a liability to their business, more power to them. And if they are wrong, well, they just hurt their ability to compete in the marketplace. Darwinian motivations will take care of this.

REAL privacy isn't information, it is the freedoms that are informed by that information. Thinking of privacy as data to be kept hidden is believing in security by obscurity. To me, privacy isn't keeping people from learning my favorite sexual position, it is the freedom for my wife and I to make that sweet, sweet love without anyone watching or interfering because they think it is immoral for two people to be doing it like... whoops.

Obscurity is NOT a good thing; it may protect you in some ways but it also enables bad behavior. The data revolution cuts both ways. It's true the government knows more about us than it ever did before, but it is equally true that we know more about it. And frankly, that's a reasonable exchange, because the government is a much bigger threat than I'll ever be.

Cameras record where you are, but they also record when a policeman uses excessive force during an arrest. You might get a ticket for speeding, but you might also get data from the radar gun that says you WEREN'T speeding, plus data that shows that particular officer was behind on his ticket quota when he stopped you. Some bureaucrat can deny you a permit to build a restaurant because he doesn't like your religion, but you can get the data to demonstrate that this particular bureaucrat has a pattern of denying permits to people of your religion. Which might be a double win, because you'll both get the permit, and cost the a--h--- responsible his job.

Here's my medical history, for anyone who is interested: I have asthma. I have Asperger's. I have degenerative L5S1 vertebrae, i.e. lower-back pain. My vision is about 20/40. I'm about 10 lbs heavier than I want to be. I have slightly elevated cholesterol, but my blood pressure (110/70) and resting heart rate (52) are the envy of all who know me. My left ankle is weak, courtesy of a severe childhood sprain. I've had surgery four times, once on my gums, once on my eyes, twice on my sinuses. I take Adderall, Flonase, and Flovent, and use Albuterol as needed. I wear custom orthotics in my shoes. That's about it.

Now I just feel so violated.
 
 
Nov 7, 2012
[ Future versions of windows and xbox will snoop on you in an automated manner and report you to MS without the need for real people to watch over. ]

You're making a mighty big leap from a patent filing to "future versions WILL". There are other reasons to file for a software patent besides an absolute intent to include functionality in a future release. Large corporations often file patents speculatively or defensively.
 
 
Nov 7, 2012
@KingDinosaur

We don't have to speculate on what an unreasonable search might be. It's described in Amendment 4. A reasonable search includes probable cause for a crime supported by the oath of a law enforcer with a legally-issued warrant that specifies what will be searched and the person or thing to be found.

While the founding fathers might not have thought through wired and wireless communications and automated information-gathering tools, it would be hard to take the 4th amendment as a template for our rights and effectively say: "okay, your paper-based (and personal effects) communications and records qualify as something secure which cannot be searched, but electronic communication is so fundamentally different that even though it is used in the same way to accomplish the same thing, you don't have the right to be secure in this medium and you are subject to unreasonable (i.e. no cause, no oath, no warrant) search and seizure."
 
 
+8 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 7, 2012
I'm not worried about "Big Brother", if he's the big, bad gub'mint. I'm boring enough and law abiding enough to not be of any interest. But I don't want any info on any database that can be accessed by non-government. I don't want people knowing I'm out at a hockey game. There were plenty of stories of people looking through obituaries and then robbing family's homes during the funeral. The last thing I want is some d-head on Facebook checking on where I am and when I'm not home.
 
 
Nov 7, 2012
@salbert

[So, if you really think you have privacy, you are probably off the grid entirely.]

...Or we just don't have the kind of job/criminal history that makes the government care about us.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 7, 2012
I have no privacy fears, because I have already assumed (12 years ago) that I no longer had any privacy. Between several divorces and marriages, three kids (all of my wives/offspring are advid Facebook and Twitter users), job interviews and applications, security clearances, EZ-Pass toll tag, government iPhone that I have to keep with me 24x7 with the location services running, college applications and payment plans, and automatic bill pay, not to mention the 30 days notice I have to give if I plan to travel outside the US, I effectively have no privacy. Now here is the kicker, I am the Information Privacy Officer at my job! So, if you really think you have privacy, you are probably off the grid entirely.
 
 
Nov 7, 2012
Ha! - I lied about my weight on my drivers license! So when Big Brother comes to get me, he's going to be looking for a woman about 12 pounds thinner. Join me in sticking it to the man!
 
 
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 7, 2012
[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.]

...says the guy who regularly proves that he doesn't know anything about history.

[I would counter by noting that any argument that uses a Hitler analogy is self-refuting.]

This is pure crap. If you're talking about Godwin's Law, it doesn't say anything about the argument being "self-refuting" (nor could it, since there *are* legitimate parallels to be drawn between certain actions and past dictators such as Hitler).

[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.]

I'm curious how you calculated these odds, because, after all, you're not an absolutist, so you would NEVER say something that you couldn't back up with facts just because it's what you wanted to believe. :Op

[I don't see that situation changing.]

...says the guy who regularly proves that he doesn't know anything about history.

[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]




WATYF
 
 
Nov 7, 2012
@tlwelge

[Get rid of the bad laws, and I'll give up all of my privacy.]

Thats a big part of the problem isn't it? Too many stupid laws and they keep coming out with more. Whatever shreds of privacy we can maintain are our first line of defense against such laws. And I don't see us not needing that defense anytime soon.
 
 
Nov 7, 2012
I'm posting this here because I just saw it and it's relevant, who needs big brother when you have Microsoft:

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/120524-Microsoft-Patents-In-Home-Consumer-Monitoring-System


Future versions of windows and xbox will snoop on you in an automated manner and report you to MS without the need for real people to watch over. The ever watchful eye of big brother is everywhere so you can play Halo and use your metro apps.
 
 
Nov 7, 2012
Well, I've been practising reading this blog whilst maintaining the appearance of being hard at work for a few years now; this one still made me laugh out loud. It even inspired me enough to recommend a tkwelge post - there's a notable first for you. I like the perspective - my own philosophy is to not really care about people's opinions of my peccadillos, that way you don't get too hung up about the privacy thing. Admittedly, realistically, that means I know I'm an idiot and I don't care.

I like CliffClaven's important point that it works both ways too - politicians and others in power must surely now realise they can get away with sweet FA in almost any situation.

Anyhow, perhaps my enjoyment is partially just relief that our good host did not get his stated preference in the recent ballot you lot were holding ;-)
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 7, 2012
"You may not value that illusion, Scott"

Maybe he doesn't need to.

What if ones obsession with privacy is a manifestation of not feeling like you have control over other parts of your life, and therefore compensate by worrying about your private sphere?

Maybe, people who fear privacy violations need an illusion of being in control to replace the illusion of having privacy before they are willing share their information more openly.
 
 
Nov 7, 2012
I'm almost more worried about what somebody called Little Brother: the non-government observation. I don't want my iPod guessing what I want to hear, and I'm a bit uncomfortable with Amazon making suggestions based on my history. And I really don't like junk mail from outfits that know the exact balance on my mortgage.

I can easily imagine some fine print on pharmacy drugs allowing them to provide data to insurance companies and mortuaries, so the former could out the sickly while the latter sent reps to visit the same. And just think of what you could do by tracking debit card use. You could get a record of movement and activity that puts your dashboard device to shame. There's probably a lobby hard at work to make this activity legal -- and to assure the privacy rights of those of who do it.

Then there's the moronic-in-hindsight sacrifice of privacy: Saying and doing things that have a high probability of reaching an unintended audience. Young adults are learning the price of posting festive photos on the Internet (I see datamining opportunities for tattoo removal services). And politicians are learning -- hilariously slowly -- they can't tell different lies to different crowds, even when there's not a "real" camera present.
 
 
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 7, 2012
Well, that may be so in the U.S. It seems the people of the U.S. haven't had a bad experience yet, or they're too gullible.

By the way, did you vote?
 
 
+19 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 7, 2012
Personally, the only reason I desire privacy at all, is due to the fact that I commit victimless crimes on a daily basis. The only reason why I worry about Apple knowing my secrets is that they may turn that info over to the government.

Get rid of the bad laws, and I'll give up all of my privacy.
 
 
+19 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 7, 2012
And don't forget about Aldous Huxley. We're living in a "Brave New World" right now. He always argued that a 1984 world was unlikely, and directly wrote to George Orwell about this. Instead of "censoring" books and changing historical records, we'll just make people completely uninterested in reading "old nonsense." History? "History is BUNK!" It's just unpleasant facts about a world that doesn't exist anymore. And we're BETTER than people used to be anyway!
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 7, 2012
This kind of hits the nail on the head. On a larger note, humanity has always been enslaved to an elite. This has been a constant throughout human civilization. The only thing that changes is our cultural acceptance of what is "over the line" and out productivity, which makes us more valuable and less expendable.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 7, 2012
Already there is invasion of privacy. Now we are talking about more willing surrender of privacy. Next it could be control on our activity (at least mobility) by the Big Brother. How about when an autocrat comes to power, and chooses to rule us like controlling his puppets? And what if medical technology gets so advanced that this puppet master does not die?

Might say it's already there to some extent, but as long as votes are not rigged too much, there may be hope of replacing the puppet master when he goes overboard?
 
 
Nov 7, 2012
"... with a warrant ... " which you seem to think we should surrender that right as well.
 
 
 
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