Friday, May 19, 2006

The Four P's of Privacy

This week's Newsweek cover featured a massive phone set atop the White House with the headline "Spying On Your Calls." Micheal Hayden stares ominously at you in the Time cover next to big red letters asking "Does This Man Have Your Number?" The media in general is awash with stories and commentary about domestic spying.

I'm very pleased the reaction has been so strong but was surprised to hear on NPR today reasoning I hoped was long extinct. A reporter visited the National Mall and asked passerbys what they thought of the spying. To my surprise, they were overwhelming in favor it. One man gave the old argument that only people who have something to hide don't want the government to spy on them. This is a very scary line of reasoning, one that I've seen shot down on TV dramas, Hollywood movies and other media outlets, I naively thought it was purged from our culture. So I find it neccessary to summerize four reasons why this argument is a poor one.

Principle. Commonly the most cited argument, many, such as myself, don't think the government should spy on us not because we have something to hide but because it's wrong to do so. Similarly, I'm against the death penalty not because I think being on death row is in my future but because I find the whole idea morally repugnant.

Precedent. Another often repeated argument, this wonders if we allow the government extra ground, it acts as a stepping stone to invade our lives in other ways. We see this issue come up in the realm of the law: if we allow illegally obtained evidence to be used in court, then we've just make warrants meaningless.

Persecution. Closely related to precedent, this reason notes that when government is allowed to enter our private lives, they now have the ability to punish us for activities that have nothing to do with terrorism; for acts that are not wrong, but are illegal. (It also easier to justify making certain acts illegal if legislators know they can use NSA data to enforce them.) What's "wrong" changes from person to person.

Prosaic. This one's new to me; NPR mentioned a Jewish legal scholar that noted when people know they are being watched, they act differently, even if their actions wouldn't be seen as wrong to whoever's watching them. The mere act of spying makes society less diverse, people express themselves less, they take few risks. I wish I could remember the exact word the scholar used, but I think this one works very well.


Anonymous said...

You should have seen the responses I saw on the Chichago Trib website. The ones who said "if you did nothing wrong then why do you care" are also very pro-Bush. Converserly the ones against it were anti-Bush. You're right, it is a very scary line of reasoning. The worst part is that some people decide that by critizing the current administration is helping terrorists. So if you only spy on people helping the terrorists, you can spy on people who critize the President.

I wouldn't just limit this to the government. Banks, who have a great deal of our personal information, have no problems selling it for their own profits. They say we can opt out of them, but the form is complicated and I can understand if some people give up early or get too confused to know which number to call. When I did call, they tried to convince me not to. I still don't even know 100% if they honored it. It's not like I can prove they didn't or it aloned harmed me. So what is keeping them from ignoring my request? Or even from finding out that they did?

Anyone with information needs to be mindful of the responsibilities it carries. Through work, I can get access to thousands of credit card numbers and passwords. If I tried anything, I would get caught. But beyond that I know it's wrong. Who watches over the government or businesses to be sure they don't do something wrong?


David said...

I would draw a stark contrast between a bank where opting out means understanding a form and the government where opting out means either withdrawing from the whole of society or going to jail. Banks (especially because there is competition between banks) allow you to live your life if you want to stay secretive. Governments don't.

Enforcement is a good point but that simply means governments need to spend more time making sure contracts are honored and less time making old ladies take off their shoes at airports.

Anonymous said...

Your arguement has several flaws:

1) How will you know the bank ignored your opt-out request? Chances are your information is out there waiting for someone to pluck it like ripe cherries off the tree of the internet. Einstein said you can't tell the difference between acceleration and gravity. So how can you tell the difference between a dishonest bank and a computer hacker?

2) How can you prove the bank ignored your request? The opt-outs have to be renewed periodicly. A bank can say you didn't opt-out correctly or often enough as a way to bypass their agreement. If they allow for electrionic opt-out, there could be a computer error. And since it is hard, if not impossible, to prove they were at fault, you can't even tell others what happened without risking a libel or slander suit.

3) What if all banks do it? Your information is a source of income. Banking organizations fight hard to make sure it's opt-out, not opt-in, to make it easier for them to make money off you. The lynchpin of your arguements have almost always include competition. What good does it do to switch banks if the alternatives do the same thing? Then you have the difficulities and fees for switching so they can squeeze just a little more blood from a stone. Afterwards, since you're no longer their customer, they are no longer bound by their customer agreements and can do what they want.

4) How is it in their best interest to pay attention to your opting out? If they can get away with selling your information even though you said not to, why don't they? You can't prove they did it, intentionally or otherwise. You may not even KNOW they did it. So what's keeping them honest?

5) How would you enforce it? Banks have money, ergo banks have power. The people wronged are kept from seeking justice because they don't have enough power. If there was an effort to enforce the laws, would you support it even though it would interfere with how businesses are run? After all to find out if they're being honest, you have to double check their claims. To do that you need information. To get the necessary information you need just cause to check their records. So how do you get just cause?

This is how all this ties into your original post. How do you know which businesses are being honest without investigating all of them? Just as Bush feels justified in getting information on everyone to find terrorists, the government has to get information on all businesses to keep them honest. But that only works if corporations are treated like human beings.

Corporations heighten individual acheivement while diminishing individual responsibility. Punishing a company does no good because the punishment is just passed to their customers. If a bank is fined $1 million and they have two million customers, how many customers would mind a 50 cent increase in fees? Is it because of the fine? No, they say, it's inflation, a fluxuating economy, pay for improvements, etc.

That is untimatly the key flaw, how do you enforce the laws and keep the laws fair when it comes to organizations? How do you punish the guilty without hurting the innocent? How can you find the truth when it can be so easily hidden?