Jun 062011

Tree Shadows

Lately, I have had the question of privacy on my mind. The “brave new world” that we live in seems to be marching headlong into a state where privacy is non-existent. On the internet, for example, Mark Zukerberg on January 8, 2010 declared that the age of privacy was essentially over, that people have become so accustomed to sharing more and different kinds of information and more openly with more people, that the social norm regarding privacy had fundamentally shifted. And it seems pretty clear that the internet generation is very open about sharing even the most intimate details of their lives on-line.

There are other forces at work here too. The “War on Terror” has, through the Patriot Act, other legislation, and associated court cases, lead to increased government surveillance of everyone, including Americans who are not even suspected of any criminal activity.

Then, there are the commercial aspects. The greatly expanded nature of communication and increased access to large amounts of computing power and mass storage have enabled businesses to accumulate, store and access vast amounts of data on virtually everyone in the country. Much of the data accumulated is public record, but there is a vast difference in the economics of having to access the data by visiting the appropriate county courthouse and looking through the paper records versus a simple data base query via a computer attached to the internet. In the former case, getting the data is cost prohibitive, in the latter, it is trivial.

By the way, is anyone else weirded out by the Progressive Insurance “SnapshotSM” program where you plug a device into the diagnostic port of your car, drive for 30 days and then send the device to the company where they use your driving habits to determine how much to charge you for insurance? I suppose you get something (maybe lower rates) for giving up some of your privacy, and I suppose it’s up to the individual to determine if it is worth it, but it’s not something I’m going to do.

My own view of privacy has gone through some shifts too. I have always felt uncomfortable with the typical question posed in title to this post. “Why should you care what we have access to? You shouldn’t have any worries if you have nothing to hide.” This always struck me as a case of guilty until proven innocent. It’s as if the government (and others) are saying, “We’re going to assume that you have something to hide and hence we claim the right to look ‘just to make sure you really are clean’.” A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on May 15, 2011 made it very clear in my mind that privacy is important even when there is nothing to hide. The basic question should be, “what right do you have to that information,” not an assumption that anyone else has a right to it unless there IS something to hide. Our privacy is precious and we should not give it up unthinkingly.

I’m old enough to remember the 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade in which the court justified a woman’s right to abortion, citing the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution to affirm the people’s right to privacy and restrictions on the individual states to place restrictions on that (and other) rights. But the word privacy doesn’t appear in in the constitution, and that lack made me scratch my head and wonder at the ruling. Of course, with the current makeup of the Supreme Court and its seeming disdain for precedent, plus the other efforts underway by the states’ and federal legislatures, that right to privacy may go the way that many of our other rights have gone (away) in the last few years.

It seems to me that the march of technology and the action of the conservative right, in combination with the complicity of the more progressive politicians who either actively aid the right or, more insidiously, don’t oppose it, are leading us down a road I don’t want to travel. More than ever, I want to have my privacy and I refuse to give it up without a really strong overriding reason. I haven’t heard that reason.

 Posted by at 11:54 am

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