"Security" versus whatever

>> Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Over at Salon, law professor Daniel Solove has a piece up in which he, "The author of a new book on the privacy/security debate identifies five false arguments that erode personal freedom." Sorry. It's just easier to cut-and-paste the article's tag and I'm feeling lazy.

What I found interesting, or odd, or disagreeable about the piece, anyway, wasn't Professor Solove's critique of various spurious claims that get offered as justifications for government encroachments on people's lives; the civil libertarian in me isn't the least bit happy about any of that. No, what I found interesting (or odd or disagreeable) was that Solove keeps framing the issue in terms of security versus privacy, as opposed to security versus liberty or some concept along those lines. No doubt he's sort of merging the two, considering privacy as a liberty interest.

This might be fine as far as it goes, the problem being that I'm not sure it goes very far. The problem, you see, is that I suspect "privacy" has become something of an outmoded concept. Put another way, the government really doesn't need provisions of the Patriot Act to surveil me, they just need access to Twitter and Facebook. Oh, and this blog. And, really, there's a ridiculous amount of stuff they can dredge up via Google if they really want, including a nice shot of the front of my residence as it appeared whenever the Google Maps car cruised past. And that's all the readily available public information: there's even more they can get if they wanted to go around to the various services that collate and sell the demographic, contact and purchasing information about me that's been collected by various supermarkets, magazine publishers, banks, online retailers, various utilities, assorted businesses I've dealt with such as auto dealerships, etc.

We've gotten to a point, tech-wise, where the digital world has become this enormous virtual open-air forum in the classical Roman sense (and not just as usually applied to the specific context of an online discussion thread) where everybody in the world's your neighbor and can see you walking around or can look into the vestibule of your domus if you happen to live along the perimeter or nearby. And we can get into all the ways you or someone you know might be living off the grid of choosing what you share or taking such-and-such steps, but the truth is (if you'll forgive the stretching of the metaphor) that all you're really talking about there is whether someone is living in a villa urbana or villa rustica or perhaps even out in the barbarian hinterlands (Gaul? Britannia?), not about the fundamentals of how the modern world has reconstructed itself around electromagnetic information.

Thing is, if you think about society at an earlier time consisting of small, close communities where everybody had a good idea of what everybody else was doing much of the time, and society now consisting of a vast, close community where everybody has a good idea of what anybody else is doing much of the time (too many people to keep track of everything, all at once, of course), then it starts to seem that the timeframe in which society consists of a large number of people where almost nobody knows what most other people are doing is a historically brief frame that sort of embraces the centuries from the Enlightenment to the end of the Twentieth Century--the epoch in which people came up with the idea of privacy as a right, basically. The "Age Of Privacy" might well be an aberration that's mistaken for a norm, I mean, because the aberrant epoch just happens to coincide with the era in which we started thinking about these kinds of things and setting out our definitions and so on.

The upshot of this being that I think arguments about whether privacy is being sacrificed for security are missing a boat that is slipping away from the dock--or might even be out of the harbor by now. If practically everybody is out in the open almost all of the time except for a handful of curmudgeons and paranoiacs who aren't really even participating in modern society in a particularly meaningful way, whither privacy? Does it still mean anything at all, and to whom?

The question, it seems to me, isn't so-called "security" (complete with scare quotes) versus "privacy" (ditto), it's "security" versus liberty (no scare quotes needed, italics for emphasis). Think about it this way: "Even if the government can easily collect data from, say f'r'instance, every American's public Facebook page, should they?" and I think you have a much more insightful and relevant question about a citizen's relationship with government. I.e. it isn't about the liberty interest formerly labeled "privacy" out of a lost cultural tradition in which people's personal lives were mostly segregated from their public lives, with curtains and doors shut between, no, it's about liberty interests in general, about whether someone ought to worry about whether or not his government cares about the various things he might have been doing in public so long as none of them are hurting anybody else.

I think my concern is this: "liberty interests" covers a broad umbrella of things including activities that ought to be public, such as freedom of speech and association, many of which are likely to be permanent interests, some of which may be expanded interests in the digital era (e.g. the Internet removes the entry barriers that might have once kept someone from disseminating a political pamphlet that he wrote--instead of having to purchase a printing press, or later a mimeograph machine, or later spend money at a copier place, one can type up one's rant--perhaps even using a publicly accessible computer at a library or using a cheap smartphone, obviating the need for even a cheap computer--and post it to a blog, whereupon the server hosting the blog becomes capable of distributing an infinite number of copies to any device accessing the hosted file). "Privacy," on the other hand, covers a small number of things, many of which have been mooted by ordinary household gadgets, sometimes with an unwitting waiver by a citizen who's simply staying current with the times (e.g. if you have a cellphone, somebody or something knows where you--or at least the cellphone and possibly your other pair of pants--are at all times the phone is on: that's how the service provider knows how much to charge you for calls; of course, you can choose not to have a cellphone, or to leave it off most of the time--choices that are increasingly impractical as time goes by, unless you mean to be some kind of hermit).

Another way of putting all this might be to say that I don't care, for instance, if the government knows that I'm politically a democratic socialist or that I spent much of a weekend afternoon with my girlfriend at a coffeeshop and I had a chai shake while I was there--I put all of these things on Facebook, myself, on the off-chance a friend or family member actually cared and because it amused me to do so. I don't care if the government knows what I read or what movies I've seen lately or what music I've recently purchased--let your eyes stray to the right of this column and that information is posted directly on this blog, if you were even the least bit curious. What I might want to know, though, is why the government might care that I followed my chai latte with a cherry-vanilla Italian soda that I shared with the significant other or that my reading list has included some comic books; I can't say "it isn't their business" because I've made it anybody's business--but what's it to them, I might indeed wonder. It's not that I'm worried about my privacy to read what I want, go where I want, associate with who I want; it's that I'm free to do all of that so long as I'm not hurting anyone else in the course of it; i.e. it's my liberty or freedom that's at stake. My privacy? Feh.


Steve Buchheit Tuesday, May 31, 2011 at 2:59:00 PM EDT  

I think it also has to do with just how much you're "out there." For me, I share only a little (but what I do, I share fully) of what I am and do. I'm constantly telling apps, "No, I don't want you to figure out where I am." About the only oddity to that is apps that show me the weather.

For me, it's not so much of what people/government knows about me, but my question of what they then infer from what they know.

It's sort of like the new rage of taking your past history and developing a google search/amazon recommendation/linked-in profile of me. More than often it's wrong (because I use Amazon to buy gifts, but have then sent to me so I can wrap them and send them on), or do searches for other people (because of my Mad Google Skillz), etc.

So, for me, the information I don't want to share I don't let out. But it's the power of putting together what I have put out there, and then sketching in the rest of my life. That's where I have the problem (and were the real power of the data lie).

Then do I start behaving in ways, or act in ways, to develop that "info once removed" profile in the way I want (which, in truth, I've already done. There's some nasty messages waiting for anybody who searches my library accounts). And if I do that, how far away is that from Orwell's 1984 where everybody maintained their passive faces so the ever present watchers couldn't tell what was going on inside?

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