Monday, February 23, 2009

What sort of privacy should we demand? What can we hope for?

Dave's comment to this Friday post about the proposed vehicle miles traveled tax (VMT tax) deserves a thoughtful response. The VMT may be DOA but the privacy debate is as important as ever.

Here is Dave's comment:
You're making me feel guilty for not being outraged. I guess you should have caught me on this decades ago, when I didn't fill out my long form census form because I thought it was too invasive.

Since then I've been worn down. Business and government know tons about me and you from our utility, credit card, computer and cell phone usage. Since I have a smart phone, T-Mobile and who knows who else knows everywhere I went to day, except maybe when I was down in Middle Georgia with no signal (but I think the GPS was still transmitting, I didn't check).

I tend over the years to slowly give up my privacy as the upside of technology seems to make it worth it.
It seems to me that it is one for thing for my "neighbors" to know what I'm up to -- and quite another thing for the "sovereign" to know.

In the rugged, bygone (and certainly idealized, if not entirely imagined) frontier days, everyone in any given area supposedly knew everyone else's business: Jones was a good farmer, Smith beats his wife, 'ol Tom is a hard drinker.... Today, we live closer together but there are so many more of us and we are often strangers to our neighbors. We don't sit out on the stoop on nice evenings and watch the passing human parade. Like as not, in many neighborhoods where houses still have front stoops, it is easier to pick up a stray bullet there than you can a sense of the community. We sit in our dens, instead, watching TV.

Many of us, though, still belong to various communities that know our business -- churches, schools, bowling leagues, fraternal organizations, ward organizations.... These people know our business; we have limited privacy with them -- and we don't mind it too much. We have chosen the association. Back on the frontier, Smith might not have been happy that everyone in the county knew he beat the missus -- but Mrs. Smith was probably grateful that the neighbors' disapproving knowledge put at least occasional brakes on Mr. Smith's behavior. And the Smiths chose to carve their farm out of the woods or prairie in that frontier county.

Technology makes intrusions into our privacy, too, but a lot of these are outgrowths or extensions of that kind of community privacy: When I give my Jewel card at the grocery, a computer makes particular note that I bought Cheerios, Doritos and Crest toothpaste. This lessens the odds that competing products won't crowd my favorites off the shelves the next time I come to the store. Maybe the store will send me coupons for something I use -- or something similar to what I usually use, in hopes I might try that instead.

I think Dave is unfair when he says that both "[b]usiness and government know tons about me and you from our utility, credit card, computer and cell phone usage." Business knows. But "business" can't whisk me away in the middle of the night.

Government knows a lot about anyone who pays taxes of course. The government knows my income, and my sources of income, and whether or not I have any taxable investments, and just how much they tanked in the last year... but they don't necessarily know if I prefer Cheerios to corn flakes. AT&T may be able to trace my cell phone signal -- but the government doesn't know who I've called or where I've called from unless AT&T tells them.

Back in the frontier days, the government was something remote. The government didn't know about Mr. and Mrs. Smith's domestic difficulties. If their problems became relevant to the government for some reason -- Mrs. Smith filed for divorce, for example (divorce at one time being a legislative function, sometimes an exclusively legislative function, particularly in the American South) or, worse, Mr. Smith killed Mrs. Smith, the government could find out what it needed to know from the Smiths' neighbors. There had to be a reason -- a justification -- for the sovereign to invade the privacy of its citizens.

This is still, largely, the way it works. But not always.

This is why people concerned about civil liberties were concerned when the Bush administration sought to give telephone companies retroactive immunity from suits "for participating in the government's program to eavesdrop on Americans without warrants following the Sept. 11 attacks." Though originally opposed to the retroactive immunity provision in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, then-Senator Obama, perhaps already thinking about how he might want to govern, changed his position and voted for the bill, with the immunities included, when the bill reached the Senate floor. (Source: Chicago Tribune article by Katie Fretland, July 10, 2008.)

But even in this example, the government was gathering information about citizens from businesses -- analogous, arguably, to the government gathering information from the Smiths' neighbors on the frontier.

Of course, in the current economic crisis, when private businesses are surrendering stakes in their ownership to the government, the lines are blurring. This is another reason to be extraordinarily cautious about allowing government into private boardrooms -- except with subpoenas, summonses and handcuffs. Lots of handcuffs.

The VMT tax would invade the citizens' privacy without even the pretense of obtaining private information from businesses that had gathered it. No, data would be collected and transmitted and citizens would be billed according to their driving habits... patterns and habits which now the government would know. It is one thing to let government put a meter on your municipal water connection; in theory you could always move to the country and dig a well and avoid the intrusion. But there would be no getting away from a VMT tax.

Except on foot.

And how far could we get then?

So: intrusions on privacy should be weighed, not just according to the promised benefit, but according to who is intruding. More and more technology will make us 'visible' to our neighbors and to the businesses that harvest information about us -- but this does not mean we should allow government the same sort of access. That's when we release the outrage, OK?


The Beach Bum said...

Curmudgeon -

"AT&T may be able to trace my cell phone signal -- but the government doesn't know who I've called or where I've called from unless AT&T tells them."

And you don't believe that the Federal Government has access to all of your phone records (without warrant).

The Beach Bum

Anonymous said...

What a lot of the civil libertarians don't realize is that many of our "forsaken liberties" are given up voluntarily. How many of the ACLU's lawyers have a fully-loaded cell-phone with a social-security number on the account?

In regard to government access to personally-identifiable information, back when I used to install car stereos and alarms for a living, we had an axiom we did business by: No matter how much you spend, no matter how many countermeasures you put in place, if they want it they'll get it.

Shelby said...

I do NOT want to be tracked. I have nothing to hide. But who is to say that I might - one day. And for good reason. This is me we're talking about.

I have a RIGHT to be not tracked. I am not a criminal. I am not a tax evader. I am an average Joe-anna.

THAT is what I demand. And I am OUTRAGED that others think I should be any less.

Thank you for posting this.

-Shelby, who is outraged in Alabama.

Kacey said...

I got a GPS for Christmas and am constantly amazed that it can tell me everything from everywhere.... and I wonder to whom it is telling my stuff. Life has become very scarey to someone who was born in the 1930's and has seen the advent of so many technological items. I think I'll go watch "Dr. Zhivago" again, so I can remember how this social experiment comes out.

sari said...

It looks like the government is hoping that apathy is still alive and well.

Dave said...

I started a comment which grew into a post.