Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Some thoughts about privacy

The big NSA hooha that the press is trying to stir up (and that’s finally resulting in some scrutiny regarding leakers), got me thinking about privacy.  I first had these thoughts over twenty years ago, when I heard Arthur Miller give a speech about how the computer age was destroying privacy.  After all, as he pointed out, every time you book a plane flight, some computer drone in the Midwest (now, he’d say India) knows what you’re doing.  Following his speech, I really considered privacy – not in the legal sense, where there’s a large body of law – but in the day-to-day sense of ordinary people.

My sense is that, to an ordinary person, privacy means the ability to conduct his life without embarrassment or scrutiny.  More specifically, I think it means that a person has the ability to create a buffer between himself and those in his immediate community.  That is, when I get up in the morning, I want to yawn, stretch, and scratch without anybody watching me engage in those personal acts.  (I’ve always thought that one of the worst punishments about prison is the absence of physical privacy.)  In the same vein, of course, we don’t want anyone peering in when we’re enjoying private time with our significant others.  At less base or rarified levels, we simply don’t want to feel like animals in the zoo, with people observing our every move throughout the day (again, a freedom from scrutiny that prisoners are denied).  

This type of privacy also includes the “none of your beeswax” areas of privacy:  that is, no matter how good my relationship is with my neighbors, it’s none of their beeswax what I earn.  Likewise, if I tell them I’m vacationing in Bermuda, but my budget really only stretches to a weekend in Los Angeles, I probably don’t want them to know that either.  And if I’m engaging in other embarrassing, but not illegal behavior, I don’t want those whom I have to meet in the store and the PTA to know about that either.

It’s these “none of your beeswax” areas of privacy that really deserve thought in the digital age.  While I want to shield this type of information from people before whom I might lose face, I’m utterly unconcerned by the fact that:  my boss knows my income; my bank knows my income; my coworkers have a good guess about my income; the hotel clerk in L.A. knows I’m there and not in Bermuda; the hotel clerk where I’m conducting a hypothetical clandestine affair knows something is going on, etc.  So a lot of what we consider private really has to do with who knows what’s going on.

Now let’s imagine ourselves back in the world of the Founding Fathers.  Even the big cities were small, and most people lived in small communities – where their neighbors knew them from birth, knew their every peccadillo, their every thought, their every move.  The wealthy lived in homes filled with slaves and servants from whom there could be no secrets   That’s a stunning absence of privacy.  Nowadays, especially given the anonymity of so many American communities, we have infinitely more day-to-day privacy than our ancestors did.  

What we have, though, that our ancestors didn’t have to contend with, is machines that are capable of gather vast amounts of information about us.  As I write this, my computer is recording the text, and recording the meta data, and when I publish this, huge streams of information come and go from my computer.  And I just don’t care that much.  I’m not doing anything illegal, and while I keep my blogging secret from my neighbors, I’m not too worried about the fact that someone I don’t know in Silicon Valley or Bombay is seeing this stream of digital information slide by them.

Of course, the algorithm changes when it’s the Government doing the scrutiny.  But, as with all things Government, there’s a balancing act involved.  We have, for more than two hundred years, routinely given the Government information about ourselves, most notably in the form of financial information for taxes.  I leave you to think of the hundreds of other ways in which we pour out information to the Government for the privilege of living in clean, relatively safe, usually well-managed communities.  So to castigate the NSA program because the Government was gathering information is ludicrous – it does that all the time.  All that we want to do is insure that Government information gathering stays within certain parameters, and doesn’t rise to Orwellian (or N. Korean) proportions – and no matter how the MSM spins it, it’s apparent that the NSA surveillance came nowhere near that level of intrusion.

It’s no bad thing to be a watchdog and to make sure that Government, which always seeks to augment its powers, does not aggregate too much ability to gather information, something that would leave citizens prey to a corrupt government.  However, it’s just partisan politics to argue that a type of government surveillance that’s been in use for umpteen years, and that is clearly intend to protect the average American citizen from being the victim of aggressive enemies, is some sort of new and horrible “invasion of privacy.”  As I began this post by pointing out, this is not the kind of act that most people see as impinging on their own personal zones of privacy.