Monday, June 10, 2013

Private Parts

The ever-insightful digby leads us to an article by Daniel J. Solove in the Chronicle of Higher Education from 2011 wherein the discussion about privacy and why it matters is discussed.  In short, it calls into question the trope that we hear whenever something like news of the N.S.A. looking into the data of every phone call ever made hits the headlines: “I’ve got nothing to hide.”

To describe the problems created by the collection and use of personal data, many commentators use a metaphor based on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell depicted a harrowing totalitarian society ruled by a government called Big Brother that watches its citizens obsessively and demands strict discipline. The Orwell metaphor, which focuses on the harms of surveillance (such as inhibition and social control), might be apt to describe government monitoring of citizens. But much of the data gathered in computer databases, such as one’s race, birth date, gender, address, or marital status, isn’t particularly sensitive. Many people don’t care about concealing the hotels they stay at, the cars they own, or the kind of beverages they drink. Frequently, though not always, people wouldn’t be inhibited or embarrassed if others knew this information.

Another metaphor better captures the problems: Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Kafka’s novel centers around a man who is arrested but not informed why. He desperately tries to find out what triggered his arrest and what’s in store for him. He finds out that a mysterious court system has a dossier on him and is investigating him, but he’s unable to learn much more. The Trial depicts a bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes that uses people’s information to make important decisions about them, yet denies the people the ability to participate in how their information is used.

The problems portrayed by the Kafkaesque metaphor are of a different sort than the problems caused by surveillance. They often do not result in inhibition. Instead they are problems of information processing—the storage, use, or analysis of data—rather than of information collection. They affect the power relationships between people and the institutions of the modern state. They not only frustrate the individual by creating a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, but also affect social structure by altering the kind of relationships people have with the institutions that make important decisions about their lives.

The question is not whether or not I or anyone else has something or nothing to hide.  We all do, whether it’s our credit card statement or our web-browser history, and no matter what it is, the idea behind a country founded on a Bill of Rights that includes the statement “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated” should be taken as least as seriously as the one about the well-regulated militia.

Simply put, the only person who can decide for me what’s private and what’s not is me.  I can go on Facebook and tell the world — or at least those who know me — what I had for dinner last night, what movie I saw last week, and so forth.  I can even tell you if I’m in a relationship or not or where I work and who I work with.  Those are my choices, though, and I made them freely.  But the idea of things that I choose to keep private being subject to scrutiny by other people and without my knowledge or consent is offensive not because they might find some deep dark secret but because I’m the one who is supposed to be the one who decides that, not someone else.

I may indeed have nothing to hide.  But that’s for me to decide.

5 barks and woofs on “Private Parts

  1. You are right. In addition, who is monitoring all this? Seems to me there must be a small army of folks sifting through all this data. How can we trust them to use this knowledge wisely?

  2. Indeed the decision should be yours, Bobby, and indeed it isn’t so under our current laws. I believe the PATRIOT Act and the FISA court have eviscerated the Fourth Amendment (which you so appropriately quoted… it is at the heart of the matter), and further, that until the PATRIOT Act is repealed, privacy of the sort you advocate will be unavailable to the American citizen. Ironically, a 1984 is in our future, not our past.

    The excuse used for keeping that draconian law in place is that it protects us from terrorism. That’s why we had the Boston Marathon bombing, right? The real reasons for such a law are far more Orwellian, and a strident negative response to it is wholly appropriate. I plan to continue shouting it from the rooftops that I do not accept surveillance of that type or magnitude, the John Ashcrofts of the world be damned.

    (Q: how come Orwell gets a capital ‘O’ in “Orwellian,” but Draco doesn’t get a capital ‘D’ in “draconian”?)

  3. Many months ago, I found out that my best friend’s husband reads all her emails, even before she’s seen them. Our emails were nothing critical, just girl-talk. However, I did NOT want to share my thoughts and feelings with her husband. It has had a chilling effect and I don’t write to her any more. He even deleted an email to her and let me know he’d done so! Makes me wonder if he’d open snail mail too. His behavior has wrecked a friendship that dates back to 1953. I feel invaded and spied upon.
    She asked why I don’t email her anymore and I said I just “got busy”. Wouldn’t dare tell her the reason…he’d delete the email!

  4. I think it’s telling that when a member of Congress (I forget who it was) tried to amend the text of the 4th Amendment to the PATRIOT Act it was rejected.

  5. I’m sorry, I have to disagree. Well, not with you, Julie. Your friends husband is a scumbag. No one in government or law enforcement is reading your email or listening to your phone calls, at least without a warrant. And there is no “small army” of people sifting through data. What there is is a computer algorithm that sifts that data looking for patterns, and if they find one, they investigate further. In short, they aren’t gathering information…for profit companies have already done that, as they always have. What they’re doing is examining that information in a search for criminal activity. You want to know what my real concern is? How in God’s name did a high school drop out who started as a security guard at the NSA become a $200,000 a year analyst at Booz Allen in just a couple of years? Why are we contracting out so much of our intelligence gathering, and is Edward Snowden an example of what we can expect when one of those contractors has to suddenly expand rapidly to meet the demands of the latest billion dollar government contract?

Comments are closed.