Every time I teach about privacy it bugs me that students are not bugged; or rather, they are not bothered about being bugged. Or something. What I am trying to say is that my students at the graduate and undergraduate level seem nonchalant about issues of personal privacy. It’s enough to make me wonder if I’m (overly) paranoid.
I mean, should it freak me out that CALEA now applies to any VoIP application, so that my Skype has to have a backdoor built in? Should that “bug me”? Moreover, does that mean that if I secure my voice communications, say by commenting out a backdoor in an open source VoIP application, I am violating federal law? And when open source is outlawed will only outlaws use open source?
Should I be bothered by experiments for remote controlling humans. There are other ways of compelling people to move, like microwaving crowds or using directional sonic blasts, but generally, when I think inner ear, I think “my stuff, leave it be.”
Should I worry about efforts to collect DNA from me if/when I am arrested. I’ve never been arrested, so I’ve never been fingerprinted (thus leaving “evil mastermind” available as a future career choice — Mwuahahaha!), but I have a feeling I wouldn’t really appreciate the FBI adding my DNA to their growing database. Gattaca wasn’t a great movie, but it would make an even worse model for public policy.
The main problem is that each of these pieces are not individually scary, it’s only when they are all collected and combined that privacy is breached. This, in the abstract, is difficult to get people excited about. Sure, you can point to issues of identity theft and other problems, and this is likely to get people interested, but the idea that the government may go one direction, and you the other — that you may want to protect this information because there is always the possibility, however remote, that you will end up at the wrong end of a policeman’s sniper scope — seems beyond what folks can be concerned about it. Sure, they say, the FBI might bend the rules here and there, but that’s not the same as a modern Stasi. Besides, if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about, they say.
And, in the end, they are probably right. For two reasons. First, if the government goes the wrong way, I suspect most Americans will follow. “My country and my government right or wrong” is the new brand of patriotism. It hasn’t gone wrong enough yet that there is reason to fight directly against government authority, but that option must always be left open. (And, I would say indefinite detention of citizens is stepping very near the line.) Many in Europe understand this, and have privacy laws that reflect that fascism is not gone, it’s just been temporarily banished, and remains a threat worth protecting against. Most students don’t have a problem with the government or private companies having this information because they cannot imagine a situation in which they would choose to come into substantive conflict with either.
Second, maybe I’m the one out of the loop. Maybe privacy was just a social artifact of the mass society of the twentieth century. Maybe now, as we are transitioning from the mass to the network, it has become time to give up our quaint notions of personal privacy. Or if not give it up, at least have it change. Maybe we will retain some form of the “right to be left alone,” but our information — our data — will be wide open. Hard to say, really. I do suspect, though, that my kids will have a very different view of privacy than I do.
Halloween has passed, but in one of my seminars this semester, a few weeks down the road, we will be talking about privacy and it will once again be my job to try to scare people, to give them something to think about. In some ways, I think I usually manage to do this, but not enough that most will agree that something should be done about it. The best I can hope for is a collective “sho ga nai” from the students.
Maybe these things bother me because our guards aren’t that guarded. It’s not just the theoretical issue of a police state that bothers me. We are still very far from such a possibility, but recent events have shown how quickly that distance can be traversed, when it complies with the will or permission of the people. After all, we (reminder: the “good guys”) these days seriously debate how much torture is too much.