Thursday, November 29, 2018

Your Dwindling Privacy

     Books have been written about it. Commentators have ranted about it. Vast arguments between supposed “policy wonks” have addressed it. But very few people are paying attention.

     I suppose we’re too busy diddling one another on social media. Hah! Yet another Orwellian phrase: the “social media” conduce to sociability and social health in no way discernible by Man. Indeed, they’re a front in the ongoing war on your privacy.

     But you, being a Gentle Reader of Liberty’s Torch, know better, right? You’ve watched the newsreels. You’ve seen the interviews with the field commanders and the wounded just back from the front. You’re too intelligent and too well informed to take part in a war against your own interests.

     Then again, you might be a conscript.

     I’ve said on several occasions that privacy, properly understood, isn’t an enforceable right in and of itself. Whatever degree of privacy Smith can secure for himself derives from his legitimately owned property and his rights over it. Hearken to this older essay:

     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.

     Nevertheless, most Americans value their privacy and would like better protections for it. At least, that’s what we say. But our behavior is at odds with such statements:

  1. An increasing percentage of our purchases are made through the Internet;
  2. Nearly all purchases that cost $100 or more are made with a credit instrument;
  3. Our interactions with one another are conducted ever more through “social media;”
  4. “Smart” devices that monitor our choices and behavior are proliferating at great speed;
  5. The number and size of our governments – we have over 88,000 of them – continue to increase.

     With the exception of item #5, no one can be blamed for the incremental losses of privacy enumerated above. No one, that is, but ourselves.

     Nearly every transaction that involves two or more of us results in the release of information about us into the public domain: information that can no longer be kept private. And a host of organizations and institutions are sucking it up repackaging it, and selling it as we speak.

     Welcome to the Age of the Fishbowl. It’s a seemingly benign habitat that lures you in with promises of efficiency and convenience. However, once you’ve entered, you can never escape.

     I first set my fingers to the keys this morning with this article in mind:

     ‘No Cash’ signs are popping up everywhere in Sweden as payments go digital. More than 4,000 Swedes have had microchips implanted in their hands to pay for things.

     Sweden is the most cashless society.

     Last year, the amount of cash in circulation in Sweden dropped to the lowest level since 1990 and is more than 40 percent below its 2007 peak. The declines in 2016 and 2017 were the biggest on record, Financial Post reported.

     Sweden’s worried and they are not sure what to do.

     Cash matters because a transaction conducted in cash conduces to greater privacy than one conducted through a credit instrument or the Internet. In the former case, only a buyer and a seller are involved; in theory at least, information about the transaction can be confined to those two persons. When a credit card or the Internet is involved, the information passes through an unknown number of hands and is stored in an unknown number of places – and neither the buyer nor the seller can compel any of those parties to observe any degree of constraint about how the information is used.

     Yet a number of “economists” – yes, those are “sneer quotes” – are arguing that cash ought to be completely eliminated. Why? Their reasons vary, but not one of them will hold water for five minutes. That’s largely because they don’t grasp what makes cash important.

     Cash is a broader concept than money or currency. Anything a seller will accept on prima facie grounds in exchange for what he sells constitutes a form of cash.

     Note that checks, promissory notes, credit, and digital transactions don’t qualify. These are not prima facie instruments; their “value,” such as it is, arises from the guarantees made by intermediating organizations and institutions. Commodities – e.g., gold, silver, copper, buckskins, whiskey, tobacco, seed corn – offered in trade are a kind of cash. Federal Reserve Notes, as little as I think of them, are a kind of cash. A promise to provide service at some future time is a kind of cash. These things don’t depend for their negotiability on the guarantees of a third party.

     Its advocates claim that Bitcoin, the best known of the “cryptocurrencies,” qualifies as cash. Considering what’s been going on with Bitcoin lately, I’m not so sure.

     Cash offers the possibility of privacy in transaction. That’s why governments are hostile to it.

     A swelling number of organizations and institutions want to know as much as possible about you and everything you do. The information has value to them. They trade it among themselves. That trade is often characterized as being to everyone’s advantage, including yours. But this is far from certain.

     Perhaps Amazon can serve us all better by remembering what we’ve purchased from it. Perhaps our television providers can better tailor their offerings to our tastes by learning what we’ve been watching. Perhaps various lesser firms can offer us what we want or need more efficiently by learning other details about our lives and interactions. But the price should be kept in mind: it involves the sacrifice of a considerable degree of privacy.

     Here’s an example that chilled me somewhat. Imagine that John and Mary, a married couple, live in a detached, single-family home with “smart” electrical metering technology: a device that continuously reports on electrical power consumption. Mary takes a trip, perhaps for business purposes, while John remains at home. During that interval their provider of electricity notices a sharp increase in electrical power consumption at their home, which drops back to previous levels shortly before Mary’s return.

     Shortly after Mary returns from her trip, she and John receive email solicitations from divorce lawyers.

     Fanciful? Yes, for the moment...but every increment in the stream of information we allow others to accumulate about us brings it closer to reality.

     It’s up to you to decide whether or not you care.

1 comment:


I remember from a couple of years ago a father going to the local Target store and reading the manager the riot act about how they were sending his daughter all sorts of customized ads for baby stuff.

It turns out that the girl was, in fact, in the very early stages of pregnancy and had been browsing the Target website for such materials - and the cookies and web links pursued resulted in person-specific ads being mailed to the house.