Privacy Follies

A recent article in the New York Times frets about government use of cell-tracking data. This highlights a strong paradox in the growing privacy debate:

With a benign government, no law-abiding citizen has anything to fear from government surveillance. With a corrupt government, no amount of legal protection can prevent surveillance abuse.

In the case of cell-phone tracking, if you’re not a terrorist, who cares if the government knows where you are? Well, drug dealers, and potentially drug customers–for example. As long as the government continues to have laws on the books that penalize victimless crimes, people engaging in those activities will need to come up with a new way of doing business. And that’s not even mentioning what might happen with private investigators.

Scott McNealy once observed: “You have zero privacy, get over it.” Which I would modify as follows: “You have zero privacy, adapt to it.” We will all eventually be monitored, for our own health reasons if nothing else. As life-saving treatments improve, the need for immediate attention becomes more critical. For example: a stroke victim’s brain ages over 3 years per hour that treatment is delayed. So keeping a monitoring device in place becomes more important as we age. I predict a decade from now, most of us will have body powered implants that send localization information at all times. We will want them, and welcome them. Problem is, some of us who think of ourselves as “law abiding” will also be caught committing crimes because of them.

Legislators try to mollify privacy advocates by promising to restrict access to the data. Bullshit. The government suffers from corruption to a degree, and the more corrupt it is, the less any legal guarantees mean. Expect selective harassment and prosecution to become a routine way of dealing with ‘troublemakers’.

Which makes it all the more important to change some laws, as well as some social customs to adapt to the new situation. I have no issue with surveillance to prevent and prosecute murder, robbery, rape, or terrorism. But there are some laws and customs we might need to rethink, so that we can keep our freedom and have the benefits of monitoring the same time:

  • Controlled substance prohibition
  • Prostitution prohibition
  • Arbitrarily low speed limits
  • Monogamy

To name a few. This is going to get very interesting. Localization data will make violation of the above increasingly difficult. Even speed limit violations will be automatically detected, should the government choose to do so. They’ll clock you and send you a bill.

Unless we can create some political change in the next decade, in the future you will have two choices:

  1. Turn your cell phone off and rip out your medical tracker.
  2. Don’t go anywhere you can’t explain.

Comments (10 comments)

Francois Tremblay / December 10th, 2005, 9:44 am / #1

Good work, as usual. I really like your maxim. I think it formulates what I always thought on this topic without quite being able to put my finger on it.

BlackSun / December 10th, 2005, 7:50 pm / #2

Thanks, Francois.

Jon, the constitution was written long before any of these technologies existed. And recent developments (such as the Patriot act) make clear that the government is not necessarily going to act according to the constitution on privacy issues. My point is that we should not be focused on the now impossible task of trying to keep our lives private, but rather on reforming the government so it won’t matter.

Jon / December 10th, 2005, 7:32 pm / #3

The real question is “Is it Constitutional..”

BlackSun / December 11th, 2005, 9:55 pm / #4

Jon, it’s just that these things weren’t mentioned in the constitution, so it’s modern law I’m concerned about. My main concern is that the surveillance which can and should be used for our protection can also be re-purposed for our repression. I don’t care what the government knows about citizens, high school, library records, etc. But I would rather that certain things people want to engage in (private behavior which would not hurt anyone) not be considered crimes and thus subject to surveillance. So I’d want to reform the government to repeal laws that deal with victimless crimes, so to speak. I think I said this by implication in my post. Or am I not understanding your question correctly?

Jon / December 11th, 2005, 9:08 pm / #5

Interesting..allow me to question your line of thinking.

So are things not mentioned(downloaded music, airplanes) subject completely to government control? For example, is cell phone tracking constitutional because it wasn’t mentioned?

Have you read all 300+ pages of the Patriot act? Of all those pages which section in particular violates your rights, or rather rights to privacy?

I understand your “real” point..but what exactly are you trying to keep “private”? Your library records, permanent records in hgh school? Those are technically government institutions, they have a right to look at your records anyway. Grand Juries can subpoena all personal records without judicial review or approval, and have been doing so for years.
I’m interested in what kind of reformations you have in mind for the government, I have a few of my own.

Jon / December 12th, 2005, 9:14 am / #6

I believe your understanding somewhat. I was debating primarily on Constitutional grounds because I know that the privacys you speak of are “mentioned” in the constitution and I could debate, using a few specific clauses, the unconstitutionality of say, cell phone listening.

Surveillance? Like the cameras all over London or the cameras at stop lights? What exactly are implying the government shouldn’t watch or is watching?

To my understanding victimless crimes include drug users and suicides. Am I right? Or did you have some other act in mind?

What are the specific laws that deal with victimless crimes that you’d like to repeal?

Francois Tremblay / December 12th, 2005, 1:28 pm / #7

“What are the specific laws that deal with victimless crimes that you’d like to repeal?”


BlackSun / December 12th, 2005, 9:16 pm / #8

“What are the specific laws that deal with victimless crimes that you’d like to repeal?”

Laws against drugs, prostitution, pornography, (except child pornography), gambling, suicide, human organ sales.

Revision of age of consent (to reflect the state of consensual behavior that already exists)

Repeal of all prohibitions on gay marriage, or other forms of family organization.

This is just to name a few.

I’m not going to go into more detail here in the comments section, because I plan on discussing these in future posts. The one thing I will say is that a lot of this has already been done in Europe, with no ill effects.

DO / January 19th, 2006, 3:40 pm / #9

Jon, did you know that there is a difference between surveillance without a warrant and surveillance with one? Members of Congress didnt have time to read all the pages of the Patriot Act document before voting, I might add.

DO / January 19th, 2006, 3:57 pm / #10

Oh, and Jon, not to be rude, but next time you get a speeding ticket in the mail, you might get to thank cell phone tracking, because that’s the next government priority in surveillance techniques.

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