Sunday, January 26, 2014

On Privacy

I hadn't intended to write about this, but it seems to have risen to the top of the public agenda.

The activities of the NSA aren't the only things that have privacy-rights advocates' hair standing on end. The recent, extremely disturbing case of the harassment of John Filippidis by Maryland police must concern any Second Amendment aficionado. And Peter Grant notes that there are private firms collecting and aggregating publicly available data on Americans to sell as a marketing tool. All in all, it's a bad time to be a devotee of peace, quiet, and personal privacy.

The problem isn't that these things are illegal, but that they're not. Worse, in the case of the private marketing companies, no imaginable law could correct the problem without utterly destroying what remains of freedom in these United States.

We release information about ourselves into the public domain with every step we take.

Smith, walking on a public street, is broadcasting his whereabouts to anyone who cares to take note. Should he enter a shop for a commercial transaction, anyone who recognizes him can quite legally record what he's purchased, and when, and from whom. (We don't need to discuss Smith's use of a credit card, do we?) If he gets into a vehicle and drives away, the make and model of the vehicle, its license plate, and its direction and speed are all easily determined. Plausible inferences about where he's going and when he'll get there are easy to draw.

Smith's interactions with regulated utilities and "common carriers" are recorded as a matter of course. They must be, both by law and for routine purposes of billing and maintenance. That includes gas companies, electric power companies, telephone companies, Internet service providers, and in many locales a number of other firms. Such companies must comply to retain some critical legal privilege, for example the privilege of stringing wires along public roads that nevertheless remain their property.

Then there are Smith's interactions with governments and governmental bodies. Every time he pays a tax bill, or uses a public library, or communicates with any person who works for a government in any capacity, he cedes information about himself and his activities into the public domain. Very few such interactions are governed by a statute. In some cases, the publication of the resulting information is required by law: for example, the ownership data, lien status, and tax data about a parcel of land.

Unless Smith resolves to remain behind his own locked front door, never communicating nor interacting with anyone else in any way, he can do nothing about this.

I wrote at Eternity Road, nine years ago:

What is privacy? An informal definition would be the privilege of "keeping yourself to yourself": that is, restricting others' access to you, to your property, and to information about those things to only those whom you approved. But access to you and your property is covered by another, better grounded right: the right of a legitimate owner to the control and disposition of his property. It's the informational component of the privacy claim that causes the problems.

If there's something about you that you don't want known, and you have a "right" to control the dissemination of that information, how do you exercise your "right" once someone has learned the critical fact? Murder? Lobotomy? Hypnosis? A voodoo curse? If you elect to have an interaction with some other person, and he refuses to agree to keep silent about it, how would you enforce your "right" to privacy and still have the interaction?

As your Curmudgeon has previously written, rights are those claims that can be simultaneously asserted without generating clashes that can only be resolved by a recourse to force (the "test of arms"). As we can see, privacy claims don't satisfy that criterion.

Those observations and inferences remain as valid as they were in 2004.

It's ridiculous to blather about whether this is good or bad. It simply is. There's nothing to be done about it. The measures individuals can take to limit their exposure are relatively few:

  • Pay cash at all times.
  • Don't buy real estate.
  • Don't have children.
  • Stay out of the hospital.
  • Communicate face-to-face only.
  • Be discreet about your relationships.
  • For the love of God, don't apply for a license for anything!
  • Stay home as much as possible.
  • If you must go out, walk.
  • Cultivate taciturnity.

Those are very severe restrictions, particularly in this age of the Internet. Most Americans could go no more than five minutes without violating one of them.

Don't imagine for a moment that laws could do anything for you beyond what you can do for yourself. Private companies are already subject to the weight of the law, and the law often mandates the very activities privacy-seekers deplore, for reasons that are persuasive if not conclusive. Governments? Please, I've already hurt myself once this week from laughing too hard.

The value of studiously collected information, meticulously organized for aggregation and reference, has simply grown too large for any force to countervail it.

As I've already said, it doesn't matter whether you regard this as good or bad. You can do no more about it than you can about the strong nuclear force...assuming you don't own a really big collider, and that, my friend, would put you on one hell of a lot of lists. These are the times we live in. If they try men's souls, well, men's souls exist to be tried, among other things. In earlier, less technologically ramified eras, the trials were simpler and more visible. We who appreciate electronic communication, automobiles, and indoor plumbing wouldn't much enjoy those times.

Making one's peace with it is, to some extent, the only way forward.


Differ said...

as ever you reasoning is sound....I just don't appreciate the conclusion....

Francis W. Porretto said...

Believe me, Differ, I'm no happier about it than you. I just can't see a way around it.

AuricTech said...

This Abstruse Goose Web comic is an amusing take on the issue of data aggregation and sharing between entities.

Anonymous said...

And people thought reciprocity on CCW was a good thing. How the hell did they think the reciprocity would be played out other than exchange of information between the states about who has CCW permits?


Unknown said...

I registered with UPS to arrange delivery service. They asked me to confirm my identity by multiple choice questions listing my former address from the '80s and my sister's married name.
UPS produced these facts based on my present address.

Mark Alger said...


It would take an obsessive on a par with a honey badger, suing on Fourth and Ninth Amendment grounds, anyone who evinced possession or dissemination of any information about him.

Would I had the wherewithal. I'd do it, smash-mouth constitutionalist that I am.


Linda Fox said...

I used to work for a housing agency, that pressured city governments to remove truly delapidated housing. Such housing was often broken into, and used by junkies for a flop.

I was the person responsible for finding out who owned the house. In those early days of the internet, such information was primarily available in the downtown county records offices. Not something you could look up on the Web.

How did I do it?

I used public libraries and old-fashioned methods. The county records told you:
- the parcel ID
- were the taxes unpaid?
- the mortgage holder of record
- the history of the ownership (useful as a starting place - relatives sometimes had better information)

- city directories
- historical notices (foreclosure, obits)

- neighbors - if it involved a juicy piece of gossip, I heard it.
- contact info
These people were highly motivated to help me

- If the person had an ex-wife, I was GOLD! Ex-wives will tall you anything you want to know, whether it's to their benefit or not. They just want the man to suffer.

The reach of that information, in the old days, was limited - over time, memories faded, people moved, and animus died. The benefit of the cities was that you could re-invent yourself - often, several times. Few knew you, or cared enough to even know your name. It's the biggest reason that cities promoted sleazy behavior - you could escape the consequences, as few knew - or cared.