Saturday, May 27, 2006

What is privacy?

NSA wiretaps and data mining, nanochips in cans of green beans, two-way GPS locators and cell phone tracking -- it's all a violation of privacy and that's a Bad Thing, right?


Well, what is privacy anyway? What's it for, and how do you know if you have it?

The "right to privacy" was invented, I believe, in 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court found it lurking in the moonshadows of the Bill of Rights. Women were guaranteed the right to walk in broad daylight into Feminist Women's Child Extraction Centers to preserve this "right to privacy." Oooooookay.

But of course the "right to privacy" goes back much further into American history. In his novel The Road to Ruin, Donald Westlake comments on the grand American tradition of "lighting out to the territories" when things got too hot at home. "Hot" as in "the sheriff's on my tail." Well, as Westlake's character -- who has just participated in a kidnaping -- points out, there aren't any territories anymore, and if there were (my observation now, not Westlake's), we'd want the sheriff to be able to find us so that he can send a search-and-rescue team if we get lost in a snowdrift.

I like privacy, too. If someone asks me an impertinent question, I like to be able to refuse to answer it. I appreciate laws that keep unfriendly observers out of my medical and financial records. And I wouldn't participate in a Big Brother TV show, where everything that happens in the house is viewed and commented upon.

So that's my definition of privacy -- to keep as much of my inner life as I choose, to have control to access to medical and financial matters, and to have personal alone space.

So I have a hard time getting exercised about a gadget that tells the company that owns the truck I'm renting that I've endangered its property by driving too fast on the highway. No one cares about my telephone calls to my friend. And blogs and e-mails -- they're public, get used to it.

Consumer Reports got excited about nanochips in products. It seems that if you buy a can with a nanochip instead of a bar code, everybody you drive past, if they have the correct scanner, will be able to tell you have a can of green beans in your car. (I remember when bar codes were the Mark of the Beast.)

Once upon a time, when everyone lived in small towns, everybody knew you bought green beans, too, and the neighbors could listen in on your phone calls, and everybody knew who everybody hung out with. It's the same information, but those days carry the golden light of nostalgia, and nobody now seems to be asking the essential question: Who cares?

The Seattle Times shows how difficult it is to get to an answer to that question:
Some labor unions and privacy experts have objected to the Big Brother implications of location tracking.

"One might think it does not matter if their employer knows that he goes to Starbucks every morning before work or that they spend Sundays at his girlfriend's house," the National Workforce Institute, a nonprofit training organization in Austin, Texas, said in a recent policy paper.

"If someone has the ability to know the real-time location of a person around the clock," the statement said, "they learn everything about that person, much of which is highly personal and private in nature."
Proving that if one asks a question of some people, they will give you an answer that is highly circular in nature. It's an invasion of privacy because it's an invasion of privacy.

However, some union members are also checking to see whether their fellow employees are wearing union-made uniforms. Car manufacturers make their employees park their foreign cars in off-company lots. This is about not privacy but control, and the answer to it is not to hide out under the same umbrella that protects thieves and murderers, but to stand up to the micromanagement.

What ever happened to courage?

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