06
Apr
10

Privacy: control, not secrecy

There’s a fundamental connection between liberty and privacy.  Liberty is, in a fairly simple-minded sense, control over one’s person.  (Most people — myself among them — would extend this to control over one’s property, as property is generally the persistent result of one’s previous actions.  But let’s not quibble.)  Bruce Schneier points out that privacy is better conceived as control over one’s personal information, rather than simply its secrecy:

There’s a lot of good stuff in there; I’m just going to hit the highlights.  The biggest idea in the essay is this one:

To the older generation, privacy is about secrecy. And, as the Supreme Court said, once something is no longer secret, it’s no longer private. But that’s not how privacy works, and it’s not how the younger generation thinks about it. Privacy is about control. When your health records are sold to a pharmaceutical company without your permission; when a social networking site changes your privacy settings to make what used to be visible only to your friends visible to everyone; when the NSA eavesdrops on everyone’s e-mail conversations–your loss of control over that information is the issue. We may not mind sharing our personal lives and thoughts, but we want to control how, where and with whom. A privacy failure is a control failure.

(Emphasis added.)

This construction spotlights the flaw in “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” surveillance-state reasoning.  It’s not about “hiding” personal information, it’s about maintaining control over personal information.  Which is why his last bit makes me acutely uneasy:

If we believe privacy is a social good, something necessary for democracy, liberty and human dignity, then we can’t rely on market forces to maintain it. Broad legislation protecting personal privacy by giving people control over their personal data is the only solution.

So far as I know, there are no sectors of the market where privacy invasion is non-optional.  If I’m concerned about what Google’s doing with my data, I can use Scroogle to maintain anonymity and get a Hushmail account rather than use gmail.  If I don’t trust Facebook with my personal information, I can… not use Facebook.  (No FarmVille?  OMG ONOZ!)  If I don’t want a purchase to show up on my credit card bill, I can pay cash.  These are mildly to significantly less convenient alternatives, but they’re available.  (Zendo Deb elaborates on the Facebook issue, and on online privacy in general.)

On the other hand, if I want to visit my parents without being subject to search, I have to commit a felony.

No, there aren’t sufficient market solutions to modern privacy issues.  But asking the government to protect personal privacy is like asking a pack of rabid wolves to guard the henhouse against foxes.  The potential for regulatory capture is enormous, as is the incentive to build in back-doors “for legitimate law-enforcement purposes” or the like.

I suspect that there’s a solution out there — ever the optimistic engineering type — and its synthesis probably involves a critical mass of the writings of Robert Heinlein, Claire Wolfe, Eric Raymond, Bruce Schneier, and Joel Spolsky, and some alcohol.  Well, lots of alcohol.  But I’m not likely to be the one to do it, so one of y’all had better get cracking.

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