Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Privacy is dead. Get over it. Let’s focus on real issues.

The United States Justice Department has ordered the four major Internet search engine companies to turn over every single search string anybody has typed into their web browser during a thirty-day window. Read about that in the New York Times here: After Subpoenas, Internet Searches Give Some Pause

And the executive branch of our government continues to defend its right to claim exemption from the Federal Intelligence Services Act of 1978 (FISA). You can read about that in the New York Times here: Administration Continues Eavesdropping Defense

As a result, I’ve been hearing some fuss about “privacy” recently. I know I’m heading for turf that may start to sound a bit backward at times, so let me begin by trying to define some terms. says, in part:

Privacy noun, 1. (a) The quality or condition of being secluded from the presence or view of others. (b) The state of being free from unsanctioned intrusion. 2. The state of being concealed; secrecy.

And Amendment IV of the United States Constitution Bill of Rights says: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

So, what I’m wondering is, why should I even bother to care about my privacy? What am I worried about, really?

I live conscientiously, and I have very little guilt or shame about my life at this point. So, what do I care about who’s watching or what they know? Heck, if you just ask me I’ll probably tell you what I’ve been up to – no need to even watch, unless you’re really curious, I guess. And I’m not trying to pull a “fast one” on anybody, so I’m not too concerned about being concealed or maintaining much secrecy.

In fact, I subscribe to the belief that I should live my life as though I were setting an example that I would want others to follow. Basically, when I have to make a decision, I prefer to follow the path that I think appropriate of what I would call a “role model.” This is all part of my master plan to leave the world a little bit better place than it was before I got here. So, secrecy works against me – I want people to have the chance to notice how I’m living. Otherwise, what’s the use in trying to be a role model?

I need to stop and think for a moment about “the state of being free from unsanctioned intrusion.” That’s when I pull out my copy of the Bill of Rights and reread Amendment IV. But the Bill of Rights sanctions “reasonable” searches of my life and property. So I guess as long we reach some kind of consensus about what’s “reasonable” then it’s probably all “sanctioned,” too.

And again, I want to emphasize: I don’t care. If somebody wants to read all of my email, fine. Mostly, it’s boring crap that I can’t imagine anybody taking much interest in. But if it floats your boat, then go for it. And if somebody wants to listen to every word of every conversation I have, over the telephone or in person – cool. Whatever. I was speaking out loud for a reason – I was hoping that at least one person was listening. If somebody else thinks it’s a worthwhile use of their time to listen to my inane day-to-day conversations, what do I care? Heck, maybe I’ll say something inspiring or profound. I doubt it, but it could happen. And in any case, what do I care?

I really don’t care if every iota of information about me is global knowledge, with one exception. I don’t trust everybody to use that information conscientiously. That’s why I don’t give strangers the PIN number to my ATM card. Not because I care whether or not they know what it is – that makes no difference to me. (In fact, several times in my life it would have been helpful if there were more people I could ask about something I forgot.) The reason I don’t give strangers that kind of information about me is because I care about how they might choose to use that information, in ways that are selfish for them and potentially hurtful to me – like taking all of my money and buying themselves a yacht.

Ok, I don’t have anywhere near enough money to buy anybody a yacht, nor am I likely to any time soon, but you get the general idea.

Basically, I would prefer that everybody know everything about me so long as I can trust that nobody is going to try to interfere with my ability to choose the course of my life. That’s my ideal fantasy world, as far as privacy goes. The necessary precondition is that I need to be able to trust everybody, including my government, to behave responsibly and conscientiously with that information, but if I were ever to have such trust I’d feel no real need for privacy.

Now, all of this runs a funny circle in my head. Let me walk you through it.

I couldn’t find a hyperlink for the text I’m about to refer to, but a good friend of mine described a psychology study to me, wherein the participants were presented with a candy dish of the type you might find sitting on somebody’s desk, especially around Halloween. Each study participant is completely alone when they find the bowl and they have no reason to believe that anybody else might be watching. And sitting next to the candy dish is a sign that says, “Please take only one.”

The study participants are divided into two groups: one group encounters the candy dish as described above, just sitting by itself, while the second group encounters the candy dish sitting in front of a mirror. And it turns out, if I am recounting all of this correctly from memory, that people were noticeably more likely to limit themselves to only one piece of candy when the dish is sitting in front of the mirror.

And now I’m really going to stretch my memory (sure could use an NSA transcript of all my conversations right about now!), but I also seem to recall that similar behavioral studies noticed that we’re more likely to wash our hands in a public bathroom if there’s a mirror present, and that we’re also more likely to wash our hands if there’s somebody else in the restroom at the same time.

The inference we might draw from this is that, generally speaking, we’re more likely to behave conscientiously if we have even just the “feeling” that somebody is watching. And that suggests to me a funny leap of logic that some of you are probably already starting to guess I’m going to make.

It would seem that, the less privacy I have (me, and everybody else, too – including everybody in government) then the more likely I am to be living in something resembling my ideal fantasy world. In my view, “privacy” as we tend to construe it on a day-to-day basis is in fact a liability – it makes the world a worse place for me to live in. And I’m selfish. I want to live in the nicest, most pleasant world that I can manage.

So screw privacy. It has damn little place in the 21st century, and we’ll all be better off if we just start getting used to the idea now. That way, we can free ourselves to focus on the real issues of conscientious behavior for ourselves and others.

Which brings me back to where I started this rant in the first place.

When I get concerned about the President of the United States issuing an executive order allowing the National Security Agency (NSA) to ignore FISA, which potentially means that the NSA has been listening to my phone conversations and reading my email without a warrant, I’m not worrying about my privacy.

For that matter, it’s worth remembering that under FISA the FBI, the DEA, and any other three-letter government agency is allowed to listen in on my life (or the life of anybody else in the United States) for up to 72 hours without a warrant anyhow – so long as they apply for that warrant retroactively at the end of the 72 hours – and the only review of this action will be a top-secret FISA court that I’ll never even know about. And even if the warrant is refused because of a lack of “probable cause” they still had 72 hours of snooping – they’re just supposed to “not use” the information they collected during those 72 hours. Yeah, right.

All of that is already legal in the United States, and has been since 1978. Did I mention that privacy is dead?

There’s another HUGE issue here that I haven’t heard anybody say a damn thing about recently, and I’m getting a little nervous. Privacy has become a smoke screen, and it’s hiding the fact that we are on the verge of becoming a police state. Do I sound like an apocalyptic paranoid alarmist yet? Run with me here…

We have declared war on an idea. We have declared war on “terrorism” world-wide. And this is not just a publicity stunt – I mean, in the wake of the September 11th attack in New York City, the United States Congress in 2001 passed what amounts to a “war powers” act granting the President of the United States war-time privileges and exemptions from the normal “checks and balances” between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government.

In times of war, this makes sense. During a time of national military crisis, we don’t want to be driving the bus by committee – we want clear, swift decision-making centralized in the office of the President as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

But we declared war on an idea.

Does anybody remember the last time we declared war on an idea? I seem to recall a “war on drugs” that, to the best of my knowledge, wasn’t especially successful. Except that it did manage to make us the one nation on this planet with the highest percentage of our population in prison – higher even than countries that we openly criticize for using their prisons to lock up people whose politics or ideology do not agree with the ruling regime. And the majority of those people in our prisons are there for “crimes” which did not have a single person whom we can name as the “victim.” But I digress.

If this “war on terrorism” goes as well as the “war on drugs” did, then in a few years I should be able to walk out my front door at 2am on a Saturday and head for any relatively low-income urban neighborhood, where I’ll find groups of terrorists hanging around on street corners, doing their business.

That example is facetious, but I hope you can see where I’m going with this?

If you follow the arguments in the press, the President claims that the “special powers” granted by Congress for the duration of this “war” allow him to bypass FISA and other, similar checks-and-balances ordinarily imposed on the executive office.

A war against an idea never ends.

If these arguments are allowed to stand, we are agreeing to at least a partial suspension of the traditional “balance of power” between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government, indefinitely. So long as that 2001 Congressional Act stands, and the idea of “terrorism” continues to exist in the world, we will not revert to the traditional peace-time balance of power that has served us reasonably well for a couple hundred years.

This seems like an incredibly bad idea to me. Weren’t there some really good reasons why we wanted a balance of power within our government in the first place? Are we really willing to say that we just don’t need that right now, and that we can live without it indefinitely? Somehow, that feels wrong to me. In fact, it feels a little bit unconstitutional.

Slippery-slope arguments are fallacy, and I think most of us understand that idea at least a little bit. But I do feel that we are setting precedent right now, and we may want to stop and think carefully before we move forward as a nation. To the best of my knowledge, we have not ever before in history granted war-time powers to a President for the duration of a war against an idea.

I’m going to stop short of making direct historical comparisons to dictators who consolidated executive power by removing “checks and balances” from the political environments in which they arose. I am NOT going to stop short of saying that I’m very uncomfortable with the present situation.

Do I want to live in a country that exists, at least from a legislative stand point, in a “permanent state of war” against an idea? How comfortable am I, living in a nation where supreme executive authority rests with the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, when that supreme executive also commands intelligence and federal-police services with at least partial exemption from legislative and judicial oversight and review? And did I mention that the office of the President has already claimed exemption from obligation to release information to my elected representatives in Congress on more than one occasion, as a result of the “special powers” already granted by Congress? I am damn uncomfortable with this.

And the really sticky part for me is that I have no clear idea what to do. I do not believe that we are about to find ourselves walking through the pages of George Orwell's 1984. I do not believe that the President is going to dissolve Congress and declare himself Emperor. I do believe that we are setting a precedent that increases the potential for future abuse of the office of President of the United States, and that it’s going to take an astute legislative body to monitor carefully for those potential abuses in the future. And I do believe that there are some conscientious people already elected to Congress, who are actively trying to figure out what is right and good for this country.

So, here’s what I’m doing right now. I’m signing up for memberships to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Amnesty International. I’m reading the news every day, and watching closely to see what happens. I’m raising my voice, and asking questions. And I’m asking for some help. I’m asking you – anybody who’s reading this – for suggestions. I mean, am I missing something huge? Am I misunderstanding this situation in some profound way? Am I a moron? Somebody throw me a rope – I feel like I’m flailing in the water on this one.




At 6:04 PM, January 27, 2006, Blogger Erik said...

Interesting look at privacy, one that I hadn't heard before. While your logic may be sound and openness may indeed lead to a better world, it's the consciencious use of knowledge concerning my words and property that is the real issue. I don't trust the government not to make judgements or rulings concerning its citizens that I don't approve of.

The direction that we are going in the US is genuinely worrying: what if terrorist suspects were given "combatant" status based on the contents of their bookshelves and email accounts rather than hostile action? In the effort to proactively prevent violence we are trampling the restrictions that our continuously tested domestic law enforment system operates under. The problem is that a classification of terrorist or combatant can very easily deny an individual their miranda rights and remove any hope of the due process that we're entitled to as citizens.

So while I, like you, am not particularly secretive about my opinions or activities, I strenuously disagree with the notion that "if you haven't done anything wrong you should have no need to hide". If my thoughts or actions diverge significantly enough from the government's idea of what is right at any time in the future assuming these policies stand, I leave myself vulnerable to persecution. I encrypt as many of my communications as is feasible, and heartily disapprove of the ability for the government to monitor me--I consider it more an example to potentially be followed than I do an act of self-protection. I have never wanted to blow anyone up, nor do I have any empathy for those who do.


At 5:16 PM, February 06, 2006, Blogger Simon Ayesse said...

I am not alone! Bipartisan concern expressed regarding the precedent we're setting shows up during congressional hearings: Gonzales Defends Legality of Surveillance

At 8:56 AM, February 07, 2006, Blogger Simon Ayesse said...

More healthy debate:

International Herald Tribune and The New York Times both report on Congressional hearings, including the absence of legislative- and judicial-branch oversight of activities initiated by the executive branch.

At 2:38 PM, February 22, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this is why some people are so beholden to their god: If they feel like someone is watching them, it is more incentive to behave well than if it were just up to them.



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