Why would I need privacy?

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.

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9 Comments

  1. Posted 11/2/2005 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    Dude, I don’t think it’s that tough… just pose as an anonymous commenter on their blogs and post 5#it about them that’s real. That should scare them off their wits. I had an annoying anonymous visitor on my blog recently who kept antagonizing me. It was the first time I had to shut off that comment thread and worry about someone cyberstalking me through private information somewhere on my blog. New bloggers don’t know privacy till they lose it. Right now their privacy is maintained merely through obscurity. It’s only a matter of time they lose that sense of security. And like you said, once you blog about something private, you can’t really take it back!

  2. Posted 11/2/2005 at 1:02 am | Permalink

    I share your concerns in the sense that I am not sure we are as concerned as we ought be about this issue. I am encouraged by the fact that these things can be discussed openly and freely still; that although entertaining exemptions to laws against torture makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, at least we are debating it.

    I guess this all speaks to your last point, that being, we need be more guarded than we are. For when the day arrives that we can no longer discuss these concerns publicly, that the debating has ceased, we will have then past the point of no return!

  3. Chheng Hong
    Posted 11/2/2005 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    It would be a good news if students turn out to say しょうがない. There was a recent debate in Taiwan about whether we should leave our fingerprint for ID card, and I was so surprised (and upset) at many fascist opinions……

  4. Posted 11/2/2005 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I think the lack of concern comes from inexperience. Those who have experienced the violations of privacy will attest to the bureaucratic nightmare that ensues and the stark nakedness of someone knowing everything about you. I also think many have accepted the fact that there is vulnerability and feel powerless to fight it.

  5. Posted 11/3/2005 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    I think it’s way too convenient to give up one’s privacy, and that’s one of the main reasons that people don’t care or even find it attractive. If I give up my privacy, I won’t have to remember a 26 passwords and I won’t have to carry around 7 ID cards. The worst part is that many are being lead to believe that giving up their privacy and freedom (these are closely linked, eh?) will make them safer. I think that the upshot is that we’re seeing the embodyment of what Freud meant when he said “Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility”. I’d really like to believe that he’s wrong, but I fear, more and more, that most people are really too lazy to care.

  6. Grace
    Posted 11/3/2005 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    My stomach twists into a tight little ball when I think of some of the lackluster reactions to these almost immenent threats to our freedom. Like Andrew says, people are willing to give it up so they can carry only one form of ID, and then comfort themselves with the tired credo that as long as they do nothing wrong they will be ok under scrutiny. It’s appalling, not only because it’s not well thought out, but because those who do think more seriously about these issues may be outnumbered and forced to comply with anti-privacy and freedom measures.

  7. Posted 11/3/2005 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Hmm, I just saw this article about Microsoft calling for Federal privacy laws.

    Personally, I think it just might be a sneak-attack against Google, but it’s nice to see nonetheless.

    Personally, I wouldn’t trade my privacy for any level of convenience; in fact I purposely inconvenience myself to protect my privacy, at least as far as all the password I use for online services are concerned.

    The EU has great privacy laws. I fear that the US is falling behind the rest of the world in many arenas; especially where technology and personal freedoms and privacy are concerned.

  8. Posted 11/6/2005 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Nothing in that article scared me like the remote control humans thing. That just gives me the willies. I wonder if its a generational thing? You’re the same age as me and i’m pretty freaked about all this stuff like you are- I think we’re more likely to expect the worst than are people a little older and a little younger.

  9. Posted 11/8/2005 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    I am one of the people who care less about privacy.
    My reasons are that it’s out of my control I can’t do anything about it.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Alex Halavais notes that his students seem fairly uninterested in protecting their privacy in the face of increasing threats and alludes to an argument often made by technological determinists: "Maybe privacy was just a social artifact of the mass society of the twentieth century". The question I would ask is if societal norms move in a direction you think is dangerous shouldn’t you act even if the process is voluntary and at the end of the process society will believe itself to be just as happy? I think a lot of technologists are giving up too soon and saying that computers make spreading data around so easy that it must eventually get everywhere (’information wants to be free’). […]

  2. By Andrew Seibert » control on 11/21/2005 at 1:49 pm

    […] I was skimming through Alex’s blog, and got interested in a couple links he had up in his privacy post. Most particularly the Remote Control Device ‘Controls’ Humans article. Don’t know why I haven’t seen this coming, probably should have this coming with hearing a couple years ago with scientists controlling rats and of course the remote controlled roach. After reading the article on human control, I am kin of wondering how far they really are? The writer of the articles suggests it can move you to the left or right, but it seems like that is only the beginning. Just what we need, someone to get a hold of this item and using it on someone else (what a great gag). How about mindless armies of foot soldiers, im sure someone could write a program to send out information to multiple troops and what to do. Just think about merging this technology with some sort of visual recognition program. Combine the two and then the program can send the worker/soldier commands on what to do according to what they see or of course hear. « project update   […]

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