You Expected Privacy, Really?

I’m a bit bemused by the uproar over Prism and the NSA, etc. etc. From the moment I joined Genie, back in the dark ages of the internet, I never thought my information would be private. We are shouting into the ether, sending digital messages in electronic bottles that can be swept up by any passing ship.

Additionally, in a conversation with my friend, Sage Walker, she made the really brilliant observation that “privacy” was a concept that probably only existed for a brief period in the middle of the twentieth century. Before that there were party lines on phones, and operators put through calls and could listen in. You wrote a telegram and handed it to a Western union agent.

Letters were carried by couriers and any seal could be opened.

Go back a few more years and you have people living and dying in small communities, and never going farther afield then some five miles. Everybody knew everybody and certainly knew each other’s business — who was cheating on their spouse, who was pregnant, who’s cow kicked down the fence, etc. etc.

It’s only going to become easier and more common as computing power increases, and we live in an ever smaller world. We’re back to the village where we all know each other’s business, but the village has seven billion people in it. Until we escape the planet I think we better get used to it.

5 Responses to You Expected Privacy, Really?

  • There’s a bit of a difference from your neighbors knowing something about your business, and the government collecting every bit of information it can, then storing it for eternity in case they ever want to reference it in the future to make innocent behaviors look like crimes long after you’ve forgotten the context of the behaviors.

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    I’m glad we are going to have this debate about what is permissible? How courts run their oversight, etc. etc. I was making the point that not realizing where this technology would lead was amazingly naive. And some of those neighbors are going to be the mayor of your town, or on the school board. The “government” is not some alien construct that appeared from outer space. It’s made up of people who are our neighbors. What we need is oversight, courts, Congress, and discussions of these issues.

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    Andrew Sullivan who is a gay, Catholic, conservative blogger who I really like had a really wonderful blog today that short of sums up the situation. He wrote:

    “Almost every single thing the government does can be abused. That doesn’t mean the government should be barred from doing anything that could lead to such abuse. It means more accountability.”

  • I think that’s awfully sanguine. Yes, privacy was a recent historical achievement, and the normal condition of the human race was one of living in public. But the normal condition of the human race for the past several millennia was also one of brutal, incessant labor that physically destroyed people (remember that Bismarck set the starting age for social security at 65 because industrial workers rarely got that old), often performed as a slave or serf; subordination of women and harsh penalties for unchastity; arbitrary rule often enforced by torture and mass killings; and a lot of other things we would not want back. I think privacy was a heroic achievement, a shield for people who needed one because they didn’t fit in.

    Sullivan’s views are all very well, but I prefer the approach of the earlier writers who said

    Congress shall make NO LAW respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances

    and

    The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

    There are times when you just have to draw the line.

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      I am fairly sanguine. We have a really robust court system, we’re having a debate, we have the means to deal with this — called the ballot box. If we don’t like that our member of Congress voted to authorize the Patriot Act — then vote them out.

      I think it’s pretty clear my love and admiration for the Constitution. It was my speciality in law school. But the rights enumerated aren’t absolute. We have set certain limits based on competing interests. The classic one is the safety of theater goers versus the right of the guy who wants to shout fire and created a panic. That’s the strength of the document is that all these issues and where lines are drawn get debated — before courts, in legislatures, during elections.

      I’ve always been an optimist and I’m not a cynic. I’m not going to lose faith in our system.

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