Posts Tagged ‘Privacy’

Privacy in the Modern Age, Part 2

Privacy In The Modern Age, Part 2   <– PDF

2          Wrong Attitudes Regarding Privacy

There are some very dangerous popular misconceptions that have served to weaken our overall privacy.  This essay will address four of them, and how, if you’ve fallen prey to one of these, you should consider re-calibrating your thinking on the subject.

I suppose the most common one is “I have nothing to hide, so why should I care what anyone knows?”  That is patently false.  As a matter of principle, you, the citizen, have everything to hide on the grounds that the details of your life are no one else’s business.  They are by definition, only your business, and only those close to you whom you trust to know.  Knowledge regarding you and your family depends on their “need to know”, and you decide who “needs to know”.  Mark “Junior High” Zuckerberg does not need to know how many children you have, or if any of them are toddlers.  Your local sheriff does not need to know where you work or where you live or your occupation.  The members of your local government do not need to know how anything about your income, or how you vote, or if you vote.  Jeff “I own that too” Bezos does not need to know what kind of car you drive, or your opinion on the man-made climate change hoax, or any other opinions you hold.  You business is yours, and theirs is theirs, and the two should never meet.  What do you know about Mark “Junior High” Zuckerberg, or Jeff “I own that too” Bezos, or your local sheriff, or your mayor?  You know virtually nothing about them, other than what they choose to release to the public.  Note the key words: “what they choose to release to the public”.  You should apply the same criteria to yourself and your family: you choose, not them.

Another common falsehood is “I am not a crook, so it doesn’t matter who knows what.”  There are two problems with this one.  First is, given the large mass of confusing and contradictory legislation, court rulings, and bureaucratic edicts, how do you know you’re not a crook?  The truth is, in this modern age, you are a crook if any penny-ante bureaucrat decides to make you a crook, even if you haven’t actually violated any law.  It is not even necessary to charge you with anything; all they have to do is put you “under investigation”, or spread a few rumors.  Enough innocuous information about you can be pieced together in such a way that you appear to be a crook.  The second problem is that even innocuous information can make you a target for blackmail, if it is construed “in the right way”.  Remember, the government already assumes you are a crook, since you are required to sign your tax forms under penalty of perjury.

The third common fallacy is “no one is interested in me”.  The fact is that everyone is interested in you, albeit for different reasons.  The commercial world is interested so they can send you advertisements and sell your data to other advertisers and “interested parties”, although you do not know who the “interested parties” are.  The government is interested because it wants to know who holds what political opinions, which is to say, whether you are a friend or an enemy of the political establishment.  It is worse than that: now that “political correctness” has reached extreme levels, one post on an obscure social media site can get you fired from your job, and it is possible that you could have difficulty finding work.  You can be denied the ability to provide for your family because some screeching moron with political or media connections was offended (or pretends to be offended) by some comment you made.  The lesson here is: if you tell them something, the commercial world will try to sell you something, and the political world will try to regulate you.  Both are equally bad because you, the citizen, have allowed yourself to become a commodity to be used and abused as the powerful see fit.  Since you are the commodity, there is always an interest in you.

The last one I’ll consider is “the government cannot do anything they want.”  How do you know?  Can your mayor call the IRS and get copies of all your tax returns?  Can the local school board access a database and find out if you are opposed to “Core Math”?  There is no way for us, the common citizen, to know if any of these are happening.  Certainly government employees are not going to admit to doing anything that violates their oaths, or that openly violates your rights.  But it would be short-sighted to assume that governments and corporations are not cooperating; a government can hire a private corporation to do indirectly what the government cannot do directly.  No one is going to tell us anything about what the government and corporations are actually doing with any data about us.  There is no reason to assume that corporations or the government are keeping their “privacy” promises.  Therefore, there is no reason for you, the citizen, to tell them anything of value.

There are no doubt a great many other common fallacies about privacy, but I think you get the idea.  Privacy is exactly what it says it means: it is private until you say otherwise.

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Privacy in the Modern Age, Part 1

PrivacyInTheModernAge_1   <– PDF

Introduction

The Fourth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution reads:

“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.”

This particular Amendment was to ensure that one abuse, among others, that had been inflicted the colonists by the British government could not be repeated under the Constitution: the infamous ‘writ of assistance’.  The historian John Fiske [1] gives a summary:

“In 1761, it was decided to enforce the Navigation Act, and one of the revenue officers at Boston applied to the superior court for a “writ of assistance”, or general search warrant, to enable him to enter private houses and search for smuggled goods, but without specifying either houses or goods.  Such general warrants had been allowed by a statute of the bad reign of Charles II, and a statute of William III, in general terms, had been granted to revenue officers in America like powers to those they possessed in England.  But James Otis showed that the issue of such writs was contrary to the whole spirit of the British constitution.  To issue such universal warrants allowing the menials of the custom-house, on mere suspicion, and perhaps from motives of personal enmity, to invade the home of any citizen, without being held responsible for any rudeness they might commit there, – such he said, was ‘a kind of power, the exercise of which cost one king of England his head and another his throne;’ and he plainly declared that even an act of Parliament which should sanction so gross an infringement of the immemorial rights of Englishmen would be treated as null and void.”

James Otis was a Boston lawyer, and one of the principal proponents of independence in the 1760’s.  He was in declining mental health and suffered permanent injury in 1769 after being severely beaten by a British customs officer.  However, he was able to sneak out of his house and fought against the British in the Battle of Bunker Hill (17 Jun 1775), escaping afterwards back to his house.

The Fourth Amendment requires any agent of the government to apply for a warrant, to be sworn under oath before a judge, describing what is to be searched and what evidence they have already obtained that would justify such a search.  It has always been a feature of American justice, at least at the local level, with two exceptions: it never applied to slaves, and it did not apply to free black people in the South during the Jim Crow era (1890’s to about the 1940’s).  The Democratic Party was an advocate for slavery and later was responsible for Jim Crow.

But we now have three problems not contemplated by the authors of the Constitution.  First is the growth of electronic technology; secondly, the power of corporations that control the electronics technology; and third, the union of those corporations and the government.  At this point in our history, the average American, unless he practices good electronic security, has virtually no privacy at all.  The following essays will describe these risks, and what you, the average American, can do to protect your privacy in the digital environment that we now wallow in.

But before we get to details, let’s first establish how the Fourth Amendment should be interpreted, and by extension, how we should think of individual privacy.  To me it means different things in the three cases I’ve mentioned.  Toward the government alone (case 1) it means, “My affairs are none of your business unless you have prior evidence that justifies investigation.”  Toward corporations, and the cooperation between corporations and the government (cases 2 and 3) it means, “My affairs are none of your business.”

There is one cardinal rule that we should remember in regard to privacy in the electronic environment: if a violation of your privacy is possible, it is being done unless the government and corporations prove under oath that it is not.  Even then, take their claims with a grain of salt.

Reference

[1] John Fiske, John Fiske’s Historical Writings, NY: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1896, Vol. 10, p. 14.  It is the same as Fiske’s original The American Revolution, 1891, Vol. 1, p. 14.

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