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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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+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 6, 2012
I think collectively, we worry about tyrants. Big Brother was not just invading privacy, it was directing your life, telling you how to live it. (I haven't read it since 1983, but I recall the TV telling him to exercise more vigorously)

Also, we worry about people taking advantage of us & evil corporations making money off us. Money leads to power leads to tyrants. Even the nuns, from your blog the other day, would most likely be corrupted if enough money & creature comforts started enticing them.

There are potential upsides, and you do a nice job describing them. Perhaps you could stretch yourself to describing the downsides?

I think the net outcome for honest people is positive, but once somebody sees you naked, there's no way for them to un-see you. There's an ick factor to all that information, and that's one reason I like privacy.

[Scott says...

Let's look at the track record so far. We Americans gave up our personal information to census takers to get representative government in return. That worked out. We registered for the draft in the forties and helped win WWII. That worked out. We give our addresses to banks so we can get mortgages, and that worked out. We register for everything from Gmail to Amazon.com to iTunes to Facebook to LinkedIn to Match.com and that all seems to be working. And of course we give up personal information in return for Social Security, healthcare, and education. That all seems to be working out.

On the negative side, there's a non-zero chance that there's some random guy in the government who might want to examine your dental records while masturbating.

So that's like, what, a tie?]
Nov 6, 2012
[Why do you want to make it harder for the government to get your personal information? Is that because you enjoy paying extra taxes for an inefficient process, or because you think some inconvenience would stop them getting information they really cared about? -- Scott]

Obviously no one 'enjoys paying extra taxes', but if there was a line on your tax form called the privacy tax dedicated to covering 'inefficient process' and it permitted payers to remain anonymous to the government in some informational areas, I'd bet there are people who would pay it.
Nov 6, 2012
Scott - all you say is true, but right now it's hard for one government person/agency to collect all the information in one place and draw useful inferences from it, and there isn't the staff to do it on a mass scale (i.e., you have to be unusually interesting to the government for them to bother to put all that data about you in one spot). One of the side-effects of the level of automation you described is that a lot more data would be easily available for analytics, etc., It would have to be, because one goal is to anticipate what people will do. Forget "big brother"ness, but there is a creepiness factor and that alone may be what people are pushing back on.

I'm all for government being somewhat poorly run and badly coordinated, as that removed a pre-condition for an absolutist state. Some of what you propose requires government to be much better run and coordinated, which could have unintended side effects as people have mentioned.

And then I voted :-)

best - and thanks for the personal reply to my post yesterday. I'm flattered (honestly)
Nov 6, 2012
I stand among the choir on this one.

Something which always made me shake my head was people expressing their fear of the government being able to read their mind. The thing is, psychology and marketing are sophisticated to a level which allows companies like Google to create a very accurate psychological profile for you, and make a very strong guess as to what's happening in your life this week. How do they do this? Simply by tracking your activities and reaping the benefits of pattern analysis.

Even IF the gov't could read your mind, so what? Are your thoughts so much worse than everyone else's? If you don't act on them, does it matter? Why should anyone care? What's the cost in resources to monitor the constant streaming of thoughts of over a hundred million people, and is it even worth it? The point is, even your thoughts fall in the same category as who you're having sex with... the government doesn't care, and won't care unless you deserve scrutiny by being a criminal or a public figure. So, how is it a bad thing if the government can monitor thoughts of dangerous, influential or powerful people?

If the gov't wanted to throw us all in jail, they can make up reasons. Mind-reading or invasion of privacy doesn't make the difference you may think it does. In fact, it's a bad choice to throw people in prison when they can instead pay taxes as a member of productive society. Consider that when you worry about "thought crimes".
+24 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 6, 2012
[Why do you want to make it harder for the government to get your personal information? Is that because you enjoy paying extra taxes for an inefficient process, or because you think some inconvenience would stop them getting information they really cared about? -- Scott]

Because the harder the process is the more they have to care about the information in order to get it. That limits the information they bother to collect.
Nov 6, 2012
Theres one criteria you forgot to mention in the stuff the government knows about you: what it wants to know about you has to be worth the bother. Right now the government has to examine traffic camera records to find out about your movements. Install a tracking device in your car and they don't have to do that anymore.

I agree that theres an awful lot the government already knows about us and can find out about us but thats no reason to just let them have the rest of it or to make it easier for them. We have warrants and other rules in place precisely to make it harder for the government to find out certain things about us. And thats a good thing.

[Why do you want to make it harder for the government to get your personal information? Is that because you enjoy paying extra taxes for an inefficient process, or because you think some inconvenience would stop them getting information they really cared about? -- Scott]
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