The Privacy Problem

Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.
General John Stark

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
Patrick Henry

Privacy, n.
1. The state or condition of being alone, undisturbed, or free from public attention, as a matter of choice or right; seclusion; freedom from interference or intrusion.
2. The state of being privy to some act
3. a. Absence or avoidance of publicity or display; secrecy, concealment, discretion; protection from public knowledge or availability.
3. b. The keeping of a secret; reticence.
Oxford English Dictionary

Privacy is often taken for granted. When the US Constitution was drafted, the founding fathers made sure to put in provisions to guarantee the privacy of the citizens they would govern. Most scholars agree that their intention was to prevent government intrusion in private lives and activities. They were very forward thinking, trying to ensure this protection would continue indefinitely into the future. Unfortunately, even the most forward thinking, well intentioned individual won’t be able to cover all of the possible scenarios that will occur in the future.

Since that fateful day in 1787, a war has raged between those advocating absolute privacy and those advocating reasonable intrusion for the sake of security. At the extreme edge of the argument are the non-consequentialists who believe that privacy should be absolute. They believe that privacy is non-negotiable and that the loss of privacy is akin to slavery. A common argument is that giving up privacy merely encourages additional loss. In other words, if you allow your privacy to be compromised once, then those that violate it will expect to be able to violate it again.

At the other edge are those that believe that privacy is irrelevant in the face of potential evil. This is also a non-consequentialist view. Individuals with this view tend to argue that if you have something to hide, then you are obviously guilty of something.

Somewhere in the middle are the consequentialists who believe that privacy is essential to a point. Violation of privacy should be allowed when the benefit of doing so outweighs the benefit of keeping something private. In other words, if disclosing a secret may save a life, or prevent an innocent person from going to jail, then a violation of privacy should be allowed.

The right to privacy has been fought over for years. In more recent years, technological advances have brought to light many of the problems with absolute privacy, and at the same time, have highlighted the need for some transparency. Technology has benefits for both the innocent and the criminal. It makes no delineation between the two, offering the same access to information for both.

New technologies have allowed communication over long distances, allowing criminals to coordinate criminal activities without the need to gather. Technology has brought devastating weaponry to the average citizen. Terrorists can use an Internet search engine to learn how to build bombs, plan attacks, and communicate with relative privacy. Common tools can be used to replicate identification papers, allowing criminals access to secure areas. The Internet can be used to obtain access to remote systems without permission.

Technology can also be used in positive ways. Mapping data can be used to optimize travel, find new places, and get you home when you’re lost. Online stores can be used to conveniently shop from your home, or find products you normally wouldn’t have access to. Social networking can be used to keep in touch with friends and relatives, and to form new friendships with strangers you may never have come in contact with otherwise. Wikipedia can be used for research and updated by complete strangers to spread knowledge. Companies can stay in contact with customers, alerting them of new products, updates to existing ones, or even alert them to potential problems with something they previously purchased.

In the last ten or so years, privacy in the US has been “under attack.” These so-called attacks come from many different sources. Governmental agencies seek access to more and more private information in order to combat terrorism and other criminal activities. Private organizations seek to obtain private information to identify new customers, customize advertisements, prevent fraud, etc. Technology has enabled these organizations to obtain this data in a variety of ways, often unbeknownst to the average user.

When was the last time you went to the airport and waited for someone to arrive at the gate? How about escorting someone to the gate before their flight? As recently as 20 years ago, it was possible to do both. However, since that time, security measures have been put in place to prevent non-ticketed individuals access beyond security checkpoints. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, security has been enhanced to include random searches, bomb sniffing, pat downs, full-body scanners, and more. In fact, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) started random screening at the gate in 2008. Even more recently, the TSA has authorized random swabbing of passenger hands to detect explosive residue. While these measures arguably enhance security, it does so at the expense of the private individual. Many travelers feel violated by the process, even arguing that they are assumed to be guilty, having to prove their innocence every time they fly.

Traditionally, any criminal proceeding is conducted with the assumption of innocence. A criminal is considered innocent of a crime unless and until they are proven guilty. In the airport example above, the passengers are being screened with what can be considered an assumption of guilt. If you refuse to be screened, you are barred from flying, if lucky, or taken in for additional questioning and potentially jailed for the offense. Of course, individuals are not granted the right to fly, but rather offered the opportunity at the expense of giving up some privacy. It’s when these restrictions are applied to daily life, without the consent of the individual, that more serious problems arise.

Each and every day, the government gathers information about its citizens. This information is generally available to the public, although access is not necessarily easy. How this information is used, however, is often a source of criticism by privacy advocates. Massive databases of information have been built with algorithms digging through the data looking for patterns. If these patterns match, the individuals to whom the data belongs can be subject to additional scrutiny. This “fishing” for wrongdoing is often at the crux of the privacy argument. Generally speaking, if you look hard enough, and you gather enough data, you can find wrongdoing. More often, however, false positives pop up and individuals are subjected to additional scrutiny without warrant. In some cases, individuals can be wrongly detained.

Many privacy opposers argue that an innocent person has nothing to hide. However, this argument can be considered a fallacy. Professor Daniel Solove wrote an essay explaining why this argument is faulty. He argues that the “nothing to hide argument” is essentially hollow. Privacy is an inherently individualistic preference. Without knowing the full extent of how information will be used, it is impossible to say that revealing everything will have no ill effects, assuming the individual is innocent of wrongdoing. For instance, data collected by the government may not be used to identify you as a criminal, but it may result in embarrassment or feelings of exposure. What one person may consider a non-issue, others may see as evil or wrong.

These arguments extend beyond government surveillance and into the private sector as well. Companies collect information about consumers at an alarming rate. Information entered into surveys, statistics collected from websites, travel information collected from toll booths, and more can be used to profile individuals. This information is made available, usually at a cost, to other companies or even individuals. This information isn’t always kept secure, either. Criminals often access remote systems, obtaining credit card and social security numbers. Stalkers and pedophiles use social networking sites to follow their victims. Personal information posted on public sites can find its way into credit reports and is even used by some businesses to justify firing employees.

Privacy laws have been put in place to prevent such abuses, but information is already out there. Have you taken the time to put your name into a search engine lately? Give it a try, you may be surprised by the information you can find out about yourself. These are public records that can be accessed by anyone. Financial and real estate information is commonly available to the public, accessible to those knowing how to look for it. Criminal records and court proceedings are published on the web now, allowing anyone a chance to access it.

Whenever you access a website, check out a book from the library, or chat with a friend in email, you run the risk of making that information available to people you don’t want to have it. In recent years, it has been common for potential employers to use the Internet to obtain background information on a potential employee. In some cases, embarrassing information can be uncovered, casting a negative light on an individual. Teachers have been fired because of pictures they posted, innocently, on their profile pages. Are you aware of how the information you publish on the Internet can be used against you?

There is no clear answer on what should and should not be kept private. Likewise, there is no clear answer on what private data the government and private companies should have access to. It is up to you, as an individual, to make a conscious choice as to what you make public. In an ever evolving world, the decisions you make today can and will have an impact on what may happen in the future. What you may think of as an innocent act today can potentially be used against you in the future. It’s up to you to fight for your privacy, both from the government, and from the companies you interact with. Be sure you’re aware of how your data can be used before you provide it. Privacy and private data is being used in new, interesting, and potentially harmful ways every day. Be sure you’re aware of how your data can be used before you provide it.