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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.


Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +320
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+12 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 7, 2012
Add these factors together:

ubiquitous data collection
proliferation of confusing laws that citizens don't understand or know about
imperfect data security (because there's no other kind)
corruptible and/or dishonest humans in the government

You will end up with a society where a powerful person wants you "taken care of", they can contact the DA they play golf with every week, and he can run a search to find out what laws you've broken. Even if you don't get convicted, your life will be hell for months to years.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 7, 2012
It's not the government I worry about. What the government knows, it stores. What it stores, others can access.

Kind-of related story: My State is 100% vote by mail. A bright young woman just knocked on my door and offered to take my ballot to a drop box for me if I had not yet mailed it. She identified herself as working for a Republican organization.

Vote by mail is great. It is much more convenient - and has done good things for improving voter participation. I like being able to sit down with my ballot and do some additional research on some of the more obscure races and initiatives while I vote.

This lovely young lady, however, is an interesting twist - a possible unintended consequence. How do I know she would turn in my ballot for me? What stops organizations like hers from offering to come in and help an elderly or infirm person fill out their ballot for them? What would stop one party from representing themselves as the opposite party so that they can collect and dispose of ballots that are likely to be cast for the other side?

She is not a government worker. She has simply inserted herself into a government process - in a perfectly legal manner.
Nov 6, 2012
I think people confuse the concept of privacy with that of personal secrets. We all have sensitive information that could be used to harm us if it fell into the hands of someone inclined to do so.

We share sensitive informationwith our doctor, lawyer, banker, priest, therapist, spouse, best friend, etc etc. and have no trouble doing so because we trust that those people have no intention to use that information to harm us, good reasons to believe that they may use that information to help us, and some ammount of assurance that they will keep that information confidential so that it doesn't end up in the wrong hands. The government generally falls into this category as well.

I'm perfectly alright with my bank knowing all the information someone would need to rob me blind, because I trust that they will not rob me themselves, and they will keep that information away from people that might want to rob me.

This should be what people are concerned about - not that the government has access to enough information to seriously harm you, but that the government will instead use that information to protect, and guard that information from people that might use it to harm you.
Nov 6, 2012
Does your secret-idea-that-could-transform-the-world depend on privacy going away? That'd be a bummer because a lot of people will hang on to privacy like they hang onto religion.

+20 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 6, 2012
Scott, if you are arguing that we shouldn't worry about Big Brother because we've already lost the battle then I would vehemently disagree. Even in a losing fight, if the cause is just then we must continue to resist. Yes, all of the facts you pointed out are true but knowing something about the bureaucracy of government, it doesn't become PII (personally identifable information) until two pieces of PII are put together to become PI (personal information). So the DMV may have data on the color of your eyes (as PII) but it doesn't become useful until it is matched to your name and address (together PI). Different parts of the government has different pieces of information about you and it doesn't get put together until it becomes interested in you and a judge grants a warrant on the grounds of probable cause because you did something that may be criminally interesting (not just any kind of interesting).

My point here is Big Brother is here but its not as all-knowing, smart, or coordinated as you portray or may think. We can still protect our rights by supporting passage of privacy laws that prevents the ability of government to put pieces of data together and use it for nefarious purposes.

Worse comes to worse, move to the developing/third world where you can't be tracked. Bin Laden was very very interesting to the government and it still took 10 years to hunt him down by tracing the movements of a message courier. He used other people's cell phones, his computer wasn't connected to the internet, and he watched TV with rabbit years. CAn be done.
Nov 6, 2012

OK. That I understood. And I will go further and say that giving up this illusion of privacy is part of the cost we need to consider here. You may not value that illusion, Scott, but since we're talking about a policy that would affect all of us the value we place on that illusion must b e considered.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 6, 2012
Scott, have you considered that maybe we _need_ the illusion of privacy?

One could imagine that the issue is not privacy itself, but that people want to feel like they are in control of their own information (or in control of their life in general). I mean, even though we now have privacy settings for our google and facebook accounts, its still data on some server far away. Its the illusion of being in control of your information that soothes us.

I know you've mentioned that human psychology is an obstacle to completing the transition.
But you seem to address it purely as a cost-benefit equation, with desire for convenience on one side, and privacy on the other.
What if there's more to it than just the illusion of privacy?
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 6, 2012
I just don't understand why Scott is giving government special treatment (unless its purely for the sake of pushing back the Big Brother argument). Government is not the only entity that could provide useful services by leveraging our infomation, nor is it the only one that could violate privacy (or the illusion thereof).
+8 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 6, 2012
I think the problem starts when the government's knowledge infringes on rights you have according to the law or constitution.

Consider (modern) germany, article 20 of our "constitution". This one specifies that citizens have the right to resist anyone, including the government, if it decides to turn non-democratic or non-social.

Only, if the government knows as much about as as you want (possibly even today it knows too much already) this right cannot be exercised anymore.

But I want that right and, watching hungary today, it's still necessary. Therefore I'm against laws that make it harder to exercise it.
+15 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 6, 2012
The only way people would or should be willing to give up the notion of privacy is when people no longer use vice as a leveraging point over other people. If nobody gave a !$%* about other individuals sexual practices, substance abuse, or other embarrassing exploitations of their own personal time then not having any privacy whatsoever would probably be a good thing. Unfortunately, people DO give a !$%* about what other folks do in their own personal time. By corollary, the government DOES care about the preoccupations of individuals. There are plenty of laws that make criminals out of perfectly normal people who mind their own business, and there are plenty of personal interests that aren't strictly illegal but are for whatever reason perfectly understandable to want to hide. I take issue with your idea that law abiding citizens have nothing to hide, and that an overwhelming portion of our society could be considered 'law abiding' when everything they do is taken into account. We would need several cultural revolutions to occur and many legal rulings overturned for my thinking this would be in any way a good thing.
Nov 6, 2012
Drowlord, for the sake of the argument, as long as the government isn't going into your house physically, can you really call that search unreasonable?

About those other things, the government knows it now...

cpbrown1, the east german government didn't have search engines back then I'd imagine. Not only can we now record more, but we can find things faster.
Nov 6, 2012

+24 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 6, 2012
Lol at this article.

Why do you think someone came up with this idea that the government needs a warrant to access some information? This was introduced to limit the power the government has. Currently they have to convince to some judge that there is a good chance that you are a criminal to get those warrants (not too mention that what the government requests should be proportional to the suspected crime, i.e. the government cannot just search your house if you violated the speed limit).

One of the problems with having everything stored in a central database is access. The problem is not so much of Hitler getting power in the U.S. but more on an individual level. The U.S. cables got leaked because they were stored in a database where a couple of thousands people have access. I think it is safe to assume that besides that one stupid person who only gained a prison cell for his leak there are others who use the information they have access to more stealthily for personal gain.

If I am a jealous husband working for the government I cannot track my wife's movements because I need a warrant to get access to the information. In your new world I have no such problems, all the data is delivered to my desktop PC (actually I would use the PC of my colleague who is on vacation obviously).

Finally with all the out-sourcing going on this problem becomes even bigger if the data gets into the hands of private companies... Note that if I CHOOSE to give my data to google or facebook then I made the choice to relinquish privacy. But I can also choose to not do it.

+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 6, 2012
Wait, so the sharing of information is ultimately only to happen between the government and me?
Wouldn't private companies be allowed to freely datamine peoples information in order to provide services?

Assuming we had in place a system for preventing abuse, then that sounds like an unneccesary restriction.
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 6, 2012
While I generally agree that privacy is an illusion, I'd disagree with a number of your thoughts.

1. The 4th amendment establishes that we have a right to be secure in our persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures. The particular way it's worded makes it pretty clear that we have some right to privacy, and even that the government is obligated to protect it.

2. Depending on what you have and how you got it, they might not have records. I have an RV, a cabin cruiser that I keep on a private (I built it) dock on a private (I dug it) half-acre pond, a car, a construction tractor with loader and other accessories, and an ultralight aircraft. These I have paper titles or bills of sale for, but aren't registered anywhere. Most of my savings is in gold and silver bullion (in my physical possession). It's not clear to me how much they know about that.

3. I'm sure the government knows I have degrees in electrical engineering and computer science and have 15 years continuous employment as a programmer. But they probably don't know that I speak 4 languages, do diesel, small engine, coin-op, and appliance repair, plumbing, locksmithing, and construction. I didn't learn any of that in school, and I've never been formally employed doing that stuff (usually cash deals or favors for friends and family when I have free time).

4. My drivers license can be renewed via the web. Apart from the date, it hasn't been updated in a decade. I'm almost 40 and my photo is from my 20's.

I don't even try to hide anything from the government. I'm not concerned at all about my privacy, and I don't mind them knowing what they want to know. But once you start learning things outside of school, buy used things, and start doing freelance or "hobby" jobs in your spare time you become a more private person by default.
Nov 6, 2012
I used to worry about all the data available to the government. Then I decided that the more information they had on *everyone*, the less they would actually be able to "know" anything about me.

Call it the "East German Stasi Effect". They surveilled everyone, and ended up overwhelmed with data that they could not possibly manage. This did give the illusion of knowing everything, but I think the opposite was true.

Some might argue that new fast computer databases would allow for the collation of all the data, but you'd still need to have a place to start like who is suspicious and why ? It would still be futile. So I say bring it ion, Big Brother.
Nov 6, 2012
You give the government way more credit than it deserves. Even what the government does have is spread out among various branches and agencies that don't play nice with each other. Even criminal activity isn't as apparent in this information as you might think, especially when it's not compiled and analyzed and that won't happen unless you do something to draw attention to yourself.

Anyway, I don't care what information the government has collected about me over the years. I only care about how that information is used. While invasive "1984"-style social engineering and oppression seems pretty unlikely, we need to make sure our laws and society doesn't evolve in that direction. Privacy advocates would be better served by making sure there are appropriate controls in place for how information is used rather than trying to control whether or not information is collected.
Nov 6, 2012
I think I liked the world better when I didn't know about the president's vital organ or which "places" it's been in. Maybe there's something to this privacy thing.

I think the amount of privacy a person has is minimal. Technically it isn't even in the constitution, if you think it is, name the section that specifically mentions your right to privacy and what those rights are. The "right" to privacy is something the supreme court pulled out of its warted, hairy rear and does so again and again when it needs "justification" for more rulings from the arse. When they need to counteract that right, some other judge pulls a different justification out of his rear.

So if we don't have any privacy, I take it that means we don't really have a right to do things that privacy was listed as the excuse either.
Nov 6, 2012
Two points: The government can't simply "get your information". The judicial branch is set up to be a watchdog - to ensure there is sufficient cause for a warrant. Secondly, you maid the point that the government has to care to get the data - how likely is that for most of us. Of course, if it had ALL of the data, it could start cross-referencing things and possibly come up with stuff to care about... I do a little here and there to try to maintain SOME privacy, like I don't use location-based apps. It isn't much.
Nov 6, 2012
I welcome Big Brother to pour over my intensely boring "personal" information.

Tonight I will be letting him know that I am onto the shenanigans that the Electoral College brings by "abstaining" from the Presidential vote while still voting for all the local elections and referendums.
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