Privacy issues

Numerous times I’ve posted half-baked concerns about our increasing loss of privacy and the dangers and even extreme dangers.

Some people have brought up good points and/or asked good questions and I will respond to those people then share further thoughts I’ve had on the topic.

Acksiom asks (after I said having a twin could be useful to raise reasonable doubt about who did what):

Joe, what kind of situations do you have in mind where that would be appropriate?  I can’t imagine any where I would want to raise reasonable doubt by blaming another innocent person, so I’m curious.

What if your employer is extremely conservative/liberal and a picture shows up of you at a gay-bar or sex shop/gun range or Tea Party rally? There are lots and lots of things of this nature. In the mild case they are things like pictures of a drunk, topless, woman at spring break 10 years ago who now wants to run for public office or be a Sunday School teacher. In the worst case we are talking matters of life and death, Jews in the Attic, type of things.

Alan states:

Privacy is a recent illusion caused by growing population and increased mobility.  Technology is allowing the return to the historical lack of privacy that has been the normal human condition for thousands of years.

You can’t fight it any more than the RIAA or MPAA can fight file sharing.  Better to start thinking how we’re going to adapt to everyone knowing everything.

In regards to his first point, it’s more like millions of years but that doesn’t distract from the validity of his observation. What is different now is that we don’t have a small homogenous tribe. We have an exceedingly diverse population with a powerful government.

In regards to his second point I’m not entirely convinced it is possible create an environment where “everyone knows everything”. And as long as an imbalance of knowledge exists there are “issues”. I am convinced that he is right about the analogy with the RIAA and MPAA. The “privacy gene” is not only “out of the bottle” the bottle has evaporated.

Sebastian posted (three+ years ago):

But in an information based society government will be able to know a lot about its citizens.  Our government probably knows more about its citizens than any other government in history.  There won’t be much means to avoid that.  Conversely though, information technology also makes it possible to know more about our government than any other people in history.  I would encourage and recommend anyone who’s interested in this topic to read David Brin’s The Transparent Society.

Tam stated (several months ago):

I think David Brin had it mostly right in The Transparent Society: This genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and the only non-Orwellian outcome will be if everybody has access to it.

Sebastian echoes (last night),

One of the sources I look to in this issue is David Brin’s “The Transparent Society”. I don’t think Brin is right about everything, but the fundamental idea that the loss of privacy isn’t such a big deal provided it’s applied equally in society, I think is a reasonable concept.

I responded (three+ years ago) by saying the politicians and government employees should go first and we will see how well that works out. The only thing I think I need to add to that post is that they should add real time location information to the collection of public servant information available to the general public.

We are entering uncharted territory. Never before has their been societies this diverse able to know this much about everyone else. Sure, if you go back far enough (it would not be necessary but just to make the point stick go back to where the family tree branching off of the apes) people didn’t have privacy when they had sex or were defecating let alone where they were or what sort of god(s) they did or did not worship. But in those days, with a much more homogenous society, it may not of mattered.

I say “may” because I wonder if such an open society was almost forced to be homogenous at a communistic lowest common denominator level. Perhaps a capitalistic/competitive society requires certain levels of privacy to function. My hypothesis is that trade secrets, secret contracts, and secret finances are necessary for a competitive society. Stated in the strongest (but perhaps indefensible) terms, if you don’t have privacy you cannot “get ahead”. A corollary that follows (perhaps also indefensible) is that if there is no privacy then society is economically doomed to some sort of tribal communistic system. Did the rise of commerce, technology and industry only come about because various tribes had privacy from one another?

Now there may be at least partial solutions to the economic hazards of a completely open society. Patents, for example, are intended to protect information that cannot be protected by trade secrets. Written agreements can be kept private unless a court order demands otherwise. But there are still many vulnerabilities when facial images or location data of people entering corporate headquarters reveals a connection between two or more companies that didn’t used to be there. Or your employer tracking after hours employee location data discovers a handful of engineers getting together at a bank and checking out empty office buildings together.

Imagine what can happen in political campaigns. Knowing who is talking to who gives someone tremendous information about what sort of issue are going to be important and how much money is going to be involved. Sure that information all comes out eventually but when you have the info weeks in advance it will make a huge difference.

Imagine the implications for stalkers. Anytime they wish to go on the hunt they leave their cell phones 50 miles away and know exactly where their prey settled down for the night.

Imagine the implications for an abused spouse trying to hide from their ex.

On a governmental scale the events are less likely but the consequences are catastrophic. Here is a scenario I heard outlined this morning. Monitoring of your water, electricity, and data (Internet) consumption shows a step increase. Examination of your communication traffic might well show that one or more people had a decrease in traffic therefore they are likely
the new residents in your home. Examination of transportation expenditures could confirm it. This fails my Jews in the Attic Test.

Imagine a scenario where a government is deadly hostile to gays (gun owners, Jews, blacks, Tea Party “terrorists”, Christian Fundamentalists, whoever). Public records (while I support gay marriage I sometimes wonder if it is a greater risk than people realize), blogs, and social networks, are scoured to identify the individuals. The communication traffic is examined and the leaders are easily identified even without knowing the content of the communication. Location information is then used in synchronized snatches at 3:00 AM. The plans for the snatch in any realistic “transparent society” would still be opaque because it would be protected out of concern for “nation security”.

Do you think it couldn’t happen in this country?

If so you have forgotten about the black lists in the 1950s. And the Japanese, German, and Italian internments which held over 100,000, of which about 60% were US citizens, during WWII. And you aren’t familiar with the Palmer Raids. Okay, the Palmer Raids were at 9:00 PM, not 3:00 AM. You have me there.

Those events are just the tip of the iceberg and  without computers. Imagine what a government could do with computers and far, far, more detailed information about our location, habits, and social networks.

Someone in law enforcement once told me that the government has a list of everyone in this country who has training as a sniper and “keeps close track of them” in what sounded like nearly daily updates on their locations and somewhat less frequent updates on their attitudes toward high level government officials. How many high-power rifle shooters also have their names on some list?

In a “transparent society” what does it matter if there are lists like that, right? You can have your lists too! But some lists are scarier than others and will always be secret for “reasons of national security”.

Although some have advocated deliberately adding noise to your digital footprint unless this is automatically done by your own computer at near zero cost per transaction you are soon going to get tired of the game. And if FinCEN can’t pierce the noise they will just make it illegal. And, as a person with a Masters degree in communication theory where we learned to pull signals out of noise, I don’t think it would be that hard to detect the noise, pull out the true signal, and then give greater attention to those people.

A few years ago I mentioned to someone in the banking industry that I did almost all my financial transaction in cash. Checks, credit and debit cards where used far less than most people. I was told that, for certain, put me on a list.

Perhaps my view is biased by reading too many books like Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Plotting Hitler’s Death, and Bloodlands—Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, but I contend a “Transparent Society” is very risky. I still don’t have any good answers short of “dropping off the grid” which just doesn’t scale. I have some possible answers which I would be glad to discuss in private but I just don’t have the time to implement them let alone deploy them on a scale where it could make a material difference even if they were effective and could avoid being declared illegal when detected.

The one method of last resort, a doomsday plan, which appears to be the least distasteful if things get really bad are the Second Amendment remedies. But even without formal gun and/or gun owner registration our society is already transparent enough that a “first strike” on the top 10,000 or so gun owners/activists with follow ups on a few hundred thousand more (remember the numbers from the WWII internment camps?) might be sufficiently effective to neutralize even it.

I’m told I’ll never have to worry about that. I suspect most of the people that tell me that are absolutely correct but for the wrong reason. I’ll be in the “first pass”.


4 thoughts on “Privacy issues

  1. “Privacy is a recent illusion caused by growing population and increased mobility.”

    I say “bullfeathers”.

    There are degrees of privacy. Many of the things that are now “not private” once were. Technology has increased ability to share information and can lead to new ways in which privacy can be breached.

    Back in the day, if you wanted some privacy you could get away from people. There’s nowhere you can go now that you can’t be found and spied upon.

    Back in the day, you wanted some privacy you could move out into the middle of nowhere. There is now technology can spy on you there.

    Back in the day, you wanted some privacy you shut your door and closed the drapes. Now they have equipment that can look through walls.

    The actual phrase ‘right to privacy’ is what is fairly recent. As far as I can find out, it was first used in “The Right to Privacy, Warren and Brandeis, 4 Harvard L.R. 193 (1890)”, but the idea of a “right to privacy” goes back thousands of years. Warren and Brandelis wrote the article “The Right To Privacy” due to then emerging technology such as photography and “sensationalist journalism”. They declared “that information which was previously hidden and private could now be “shouted from the rooftops.”

    Early invasions of privacy were treated as trespass, assault, or eavesdropping. People believed they had a right ‘to be let alone’ long before the phrase ‘right to privacy’ was coined.

    Although it wasn’t expressed as a “right”, the U.S. Supreme Court stated, in its first copyright case, that a “defendant asks nothing — wants nothing, but to be let alone until it can be shown that he has violated the rights of another.” Wheaton v. Peters, 33 U.S. 591, 634 (1834)

    The idea of ‘privacy’ is ancient, it is technology and its ability to find, record, and spread information that is eroding privacy.

  2. I’ve read Brin’s book. And he posits one scenario where a black driver is stopped by a white policeman. Each knows the other is dreadfully prejudiced against (him). But they each are wearing their vidcam and microphone, which is streaming to a secure location. In this scenario, the interaction will be cool, but polite.

    Which is where events go astray. No matter what the laws are, the driver is going to be arrested for it.

    As long as the police don’t obey the law, and will arrest you for filming it, the “open society” hasn’t arrived.

  3. The “first pass” as you call it would have to be so large (at least a million people) they’d never be able to pull it off before many on the list became aware of it. More likely it would have to be a series of “under the radar” actions as Obama put it when talking about second amendment infringements.

    The one thing we have going for us is we know what the left is capable of doing before they do, we know their motivations and we know what pushes their buttons. That means we can anticipate their actions even before they come up with specific plans. We know that they are cowards as a rule, and tend to act, physically at least, only as part of a gang or a mob (or a multi-agency operation) with plausible deniability. There are a lot of data points there.

    What we almost always have going against us is denial. We don’t want to believe the socialists could be that crazy. We know certain leftist individuals and they’re somewhat reasonable people in many ways. We then apply that observation to the whole cult. That’s always a huge mistake and it repeats all throughout the 20th century, resulting in oppression, ruined economies and the deaths of tens of millions. They are (or rather “it is”– remember this is a cult/mob phenomenon we face, based on denial of human rights) every bit as crazy as crazy can get and you all know it if you think about it, so take that as a given and proceed accordingly.

  4. It depends on what the intent of the “first pass” was. A few thousand people is probably doable. The Palmer raids were able to grab several hundred in a single night. With a larger police force and better communication they might be able to pull it off.

    With a few thousand of the top guys locked up organization of the remainder would be almost nonexistent. The propaganda machines would be running at full throttle and the mass of the people would be supportive. Remember what was said when they deported the people from the Palmer Raids,

    The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote: “It is hoped and expected that other vessels, larger, more commodious, carrying similar cargoes, will follow in her wake.”

    This would be particularly true if a few cop were injured by the resistance. That would be used as justification for more arrests and preemptive use of force on the remainder. The remainder would have little public support and with their friends and family networks mapped out ahead of time evading arrest would be very difficult for more than a few days.

    The only hope is if some cop were able to figure out what was going on in enough time to give someone enough of a warning. But with the right execution plan the individual cops might not have anytime more than an address. Perhaps only one out of ten would have any significant advance notice of the actual names, occupations, and reason for the arrests.

    Until the “transparent society” is something other than a one-way mirror the loss of privacy is a significant risk.

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