Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Privacy Myth

No matter which side they're on, everyone is talking about the "revelation" that the National Security Agency has been collecting data about Americans' private communications. Aside from the clearly documented fact that we've known about this program since 2005 (it inspired my very first comedy video), I find it curious that many people are calling this an indefensible invasion of privacy -- a "draconian" program that is both unconstitutional and unethical.

I do not understand how anyone can reasonably expect privacy protection for their telephone metadata (phone numbers and identities of parties, and the duration of their calls, which is what the NSA has been collecting). I'm afraid it is not, as many claim, a violation of our Fourth Amendment rights: The 1979 Supreme Court case of Smith v. Maryland established that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding telephone metadata. Today's suit by the ACLU therefore has no grounds and will be dismissed (which, fortunately, has never stopped them from trying before). So, there's that minor detail.

The notion of absolute or even relative privacy is a quaint relic from a bygone, pre-electronic era. How often is our cherished personal privacy routinely violated, in manners which we accept without the slightest protest? Let us count the ways:

1. Anytime you appear in public, you are photographed constantly by security cameras. As seen in the Boston Marathon bombings case, this video can be combined to track your movements with incredible accuracy, should anyone wish to do so.

2. If you have a cell phone and it's turned on, your real-time, minute-to-minute position can be similarly monitored and tracked with amazing accuracy. This technology, too, was used in the Boston case.

3. If you drive a car with an air bag system, a device under your hood constantly records your speed, acceleration, and braking actions. If you're in an accident, the data from this recorder can and will be used against you in a court of law.

4. If you own property, anyone with an internet connection can view photos of it, taken from several different angles, for free. Zillow.com will even overlay information about the size of the home and the most recent sale price.

5. For a nominal fee, anyone can perform a government- and/or credit-records search to reveal your home address (if that isn't already freely available), residence history, arrest record, credit score, business license, etc.

6. If you upload a photograph, the file can be analyzed to reveal the camera's serial number, and if the seller is subpoenaed, your identity as the photographer.

7. Any online photograph identifying you can be found in seconds, by anyone, as can any information that has ever been revealed about you online. It is virtually impossible to get such things removed.

8. If you touch something and invariably shed skin cells or hairs, your presence at the scene can later be confirmed with incredible certitude, through DNA sequencing.

9. Consumer data centers have compiled dossiers on you and your buying habits. (If you're turning 55 soon, you'll be hearing from the AARP. You can be sure of it.)

10. If you include the term "Game of Thrones" in your text on Gmail, you may well be targeted with a banner ad involving Game of Thrones. Yeah, your emails are being scanned by a corporate entity with zero oversight. Does that not bother you also, and if so, why do you still use Gmail?

11. If you live in certain cities (like mine) and you live in an apartment, you can be fined for lighting up a cigarette inside your own home. Now, if that isn't an affront to personal privacy and freedom -- an otherwise-legal act being outlawed in one's own home -- I don't know what is. Yet, the members of my community seem to think this is just fine. (I am neither a smoker nor an apartment dweller.)

12. Then of course there's the personal information that users of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., are happy to distribute to the world. This self-invasiveness, in many cases, boggles the mind.

Through all of this, though, somehow there's an assumption that one's precious phone-calling records are sacrosanct. Where is this world, where we can expect to do anything and go anywhere we wish, using any technology, without leaving a trace? It's no world that I know -- at least not one that's existed for the past 20 years.

If you don't like the fact that privacy no longer exists, then either elect Congresspeople who will enact privacy laws (probably not going to happen), or I suppose, move to a cabin in the woods and live Ted Kaczynski-style. But to text and chat on your high-tech device claiming that the government's actions are unethical and unconstitutional, and that you're outraged by this affront ... get real. That ship has sailed long ago.

Update 6/13: Here's a great companion article on the myth of privacy:
The Top 5 Things You Didn't Know the Government Knows About You by Meagan Reed (HuffPo)


  1. I agree that there is a lot of hysteria and hype surrounding this issue, and that privacy is somewhat overrated (judge Richard Posner made a very convincing video pushing this view: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQu0et1jXfs), but the NSA leaks revealed that the NSA does a lot more than just store telephone metadata. The PRISM program allows real-time electronic surveillance and access to your e-mails.

    It may be extremely unlikely that the government has the capacity or the willingness to hire enough agents to randomly browse through ordinary people's e-mails (it's all probably done through computer algorithms), but it is very troubling that they can make targeted surveillance in the way Snowden described. It may not effect you or me personally, but it could be used against politicians, government workers or anyone who is in a position to challenge abuses by the US military or intelligence agencies (or in the case of the UK, to spy on foreign diplomats and politicians). It also sucks that the government can create a program like PRISM without making much noise and debate, and with so little oversight.

  2. What is infuriating to me is that many of the people who screamed the loudest about the NSA program also post details of their daily life on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

  3. How many people actually read fully, and understand fully what they have signed up for with their ISP, Telco, email service provider or the hundreds of other things you have joined or signed up for and just clicked "accept"?

    The more we rely on technology the more we leave ourselves vulnerable, we trust too much in the privacy of communication without understanding how vulnerable it is, the expectation of privacy was always wishful thinking if you didn't understand what you where signing up for.

    The telco networks did not appear put of nowhere, they are commercial entities that you choose to use, do The internet is a business, it’s not "free" in respect of its infrastructure someone somewhere actually owns parts of it that you send and receive your information on, the sites you use, the providers you post your blogs on, the message board you just posted your comment on...

  4. It amazes me how much some people are willing to reveal about themselves.