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There’s always something to howl about

“Privacy is an artifact of inefficiency”

I say that just about every time I speak in public, and people always ask me to repeat it, and they inscribe it carefully into their notes.

It’s a simple enough idea: What you’ve thought of all your life as privacy has simply been a function of inefficient data processing tools. The more efficacious the means of acquiring and storing data become, the less privacy — unintentional ignorance by others of observable facts — you will have.

If you find this idea repellent — dang…

It is what it is, and it’s absurd to rebel against it. We are real, physical entities. Our purposive actions sometimes have secondary physical consequences that are potentially observable to other people — and to data acquisition devices. Your best hope of achieving privacy, going forward, is to expire. Short of that, you might try to exist in some sort of extra-physical way. And short of that, you might try doing everything you do where no one — and nothing — else can observe you. And short of all that, swallow hard and prepare to have every fact of your life known, at least potentially, by anyone or everyone else.

This does not bother me at all. I deliberately lead a hugely public life. I’m not showy, I hope, but I never want for someone to be able to say something truthful about me that I have not said first myself. I try to lead a very moral life, but no one is perfect. But what I don’t want, ever, is to give the impression that I am trying to hide my imperfections. (Disclosure: I caused a car accident earlier this evening. No one was hurt, but the front end of my car was smacked up pretty good.)

(People who send me email will have grown used to me replying with multiple names in the CC line. I’m never trying to hide facts about my life, but, I am normally trying very hard to not-hide those facts.)

Another thing I say in speeches is that the world is becoming more and more the realm I would have imagined for myself. Mostly the private details of human lives are banal and boring. But if keeping secrets gives other people power over me, then I choose to have no secrets of any sort. (Briefs. Force of habit.)

Anyway, all that’s by way of introducing an article on privacy and data processing from today’s New York Times. I think the article misses more targets than it manages to hit, but the discussion of the massively macro-scale heuristics made possible by the internet is worth pursuing.

“The guilty flee where none pursueth.” It has never occurred to me to try to keep secrets because I know that no purposive human action ever goes unwitnessed. The fact is that most purposive human behavior is completely introspective. No one else can see — but I cannot avoid being aware of my own behavior. To hide from others, I would first have to affect to have hidden myself from myself. This is not an efficient use of a human mind. I expect I’m at the right edge of the Bell Curve when it comes to contempt for privacy — and feel free to ask me why if you want to know — but it remains that just about everything evil in human behavior emerges from secrets and lies.

And, like it or don’t, secrets and lies are soon to be dusty artifacts of the past…

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  • 25 comments

    25 Comments so far

    1. Thomas Johnson December 1st, 2008 8:59 am

      As an old, and feeling older by the minute cold warrior, this is ever more apparent in our struggle to keep America safe. DOD and DOE can’t keep our secrets secret even by spending billions to keep them and us safe. I have given up worrying about where my SSN ends up. It was gone when the state of Georgia used it as my driver’s license.

      Having spent a bit of my life guarding Top Secrets, it is still a bit worrying to me that all information is now known or readily knowable. This flood of information is disintermediating not only business models, but sovereign states as well.

    2. Chris Johnson December 1st, 2008 9:32 am

      I was at once point going to post on this subject with integrity as the line–basically–integrity is what you do when nobody is looking.

      But if we assume everyone is watching, we can kick ass, take names and do more work than ordinarily possible.

    3. Sean Purcell December 1st, 2008 9:42 am

      Greg,

      I am torn by parts of your thesis. To the degree that who I am or what I do involves public interaction then yes, that privacy is gone. The great tabulators are reporting my every move to Big Brother… actually I haven’t given in the belief of Big Brother yet. Let’s call it that Big, Bumbling Uncle.

      But when you say:

      (my) contempt for privacy … it remains that just about everything evil in human behavior emerges from secrets and lies

      you insinuate a moral equivalency between secrets and lies; which you then equate with privacy. They are not all one in the same. I may have secret fantasies I share only with my lover. Those secrets are not lies. They may become lies if I were to fulfill them without telling her, but even that is not a foregone conclusion. In any case, if I do not share those same fantasies with you I have not lied nor kept a secret. I have simply maintained my privacy in matters I deem not open to public purview.

    4. Greg Swann December 1st, 2008 10:58 am

      > But if we assume everyone is watching, we can kick ass, take names and do more work than ordinarily possible.

      I agree with this. I’ll give you a platinum standard for moderating your behavior: In what light would a plaintiff’s attorney seek to portray this action? If no jury would believe that your motives were anything but pure, you have no fear of discovery.

    5. Greg Swann December 1st, 2008 11:13 am

      > 1. I may have secret fantasies I share only with my lover.

      > 2. I have simply maintained my privacy in matters I deem not open to public purview.

      Proposition #1 eats proposition #2. Anything you have made manifest where it can be detected is no longer an assuredly private matter.

      I agree that not all secrets lead to evil — although many do. I can give you a graduation, if you like:

      1. Facts about my life I have not shared with you.

      2. Facts about my life I do not intend to share with you.

      3. Facts about my life I will take pains to prevent you from discovering.

      4. Facts about my life I will deny.

      Item #4 is evil in se, but #3 is an entryway to evil, either to being blackmailed or to doing what I call switchboarding — attempting to channel conversations to control who can discover what facts.

      But: Whether or not secrets lead to evil, soon there won’t be any secrets left unexposed. It’s not a matter for either despair or celebration. It just is.

    6. Teri Lussier December 1st, 2008 1:00 pm

      We discuss this with some regularity, and I hate this- which I’m sure you know. We should be allowed to choose privacy or not- to have it forced down our throats is coercion. I will cling to that, like a cat hanging from the drapery, regardless of what you say. :-D

      So. hrmpf. I’m both repelled and resigned. Dang, indeed.

    7. Joe Strummer December 1st, 2008 2:14 pm

      Things are private until they’re not. For instance, Greg knows my real name. But I choose to post here anonymously because I don’t care to have everyone in the world know my thoughts. Greg is not required by any external force (certainly not government) never to say who I am, and I suspect that if I abused my privilege here, he might be justified in shaming me by outing me. So Greg acknowledges my implicit desire to be anonymous. I, in turn, don’t abuse my privilege to post here. And to the extent that Greg did, in my view, “out” me for no good reason, I might be inclined never to recommend him as a realtor for friends who move to Phoenix.

      The law recognizes some rights to privacy – HIPAA is a statutory example, a trade secret is a common law example – in various ways. But when it comes to most interactions, we simply associate with people who dignify the relationship with appropriate discretion.

      The point is that even as technology or information systems become more adept at collecting information about us, we will continue to rely on all kinds of informal norms and techniques to maintain privacy.

      And in some cases, technology works both ways. When I was young, I hung out on Usenet which enabled people to post via anonymizers. Those could be abused, but they also had great value in enabling people to criticize governments and organizations that didn’t usually respond to such criticisms with grace.

    8. Sean Purcell December 1st, 2008 3:59 pm

      Greg,

      Proposition #1 eats proposition #2.

      This is a straw man argument. I did not say that my secrets could not be betrayed. That problem has existed since Adam pointed his bony little finger at Eve.

      I was merely pointing out that secrets do not equal lies and that privacy does not necessarily equal either. In your four step progression above, the first two steps are decisions you have made with regard to your privacy. Steps 3 and especially 4 appear to be decisions I have made to invade your privacy – thus leading to evil. Again, this is not new; just more pervasive thanks to electronics (when did I become a Luddite?).

      Not to put words in your mouth, but I believe that was your point all along: the internet combined with other info gathering technologies have increased the power of those who would nose into my privacy and – as suggested by your link – increased the potential audience or “consumer” for my information. It still goes back to betrayal and I don’t foresee that becoming as ubiquitous as the internet… or even our own Brian Brady. :)

    9. Greg Swann December 1st, 2008 7:47 pm

      > the internet combined with other info gathering technologies have increased the power of those who would nose into my privacy

      I disagree with that formulation. Likewise with Teri’s claim of coercion. Every bit of the information that people might decry as a loss of privacy is volunteered by those self-same people. Any systemic response to that loss of privacy probably would occasion coercion — force.

      It makes no difference that cheap data processing enables the people who collect the information that you have volunteered to retain it in bulk in perpetuity and to draw software-based conclusions from it. The hostile reaction to this strikes me as being absurd. It’s trivia, and it is only meaningful in the aggregate.

    10. Greg Swann December 1st, 2008 7:53 pm

      > When I was young, I hung out on Usenet which enabled people to post via anonymizers.

      This is possible in the web-based world through proxy-servers.

    11. Sean Purcell December 1st, 2008 8:19 pm

      Greg,

      You take us, as you often do, into the realm of metaphysics. I live in a universe of my own creation. Solipsism abounds. My privacy cannot be taken, as the information does not exist outside my own relevance. You may gather information that you find important. But my privacy is inherent. If my confidence is betrayed it is neither trivial not important in the aggregate. It simply reflects on my decisions within my universe. Lies and secrets exist only in that you (and throughout I mean the greater you, not you personally Greg) assign them that meaning. The power of information falters in the presence of my power to exist.

    12. Teri Lussier December 1st, 2008 8:27 pm

      I have no clue what Sean is talking about. :-)

      >Every bit of the information that people might decry as a loss of privacy is volunteered by those self-same people.

      If I email you privately and you post that email or cc a response, is that not forced public outing of what I thought was private? Just as an example. I didn’t volunteer that, simply because I sent it to you, did I? I realize now that it’s a possibility, but I didn’t know that the first time it happened.

      Any thought that is made public in any way is now available to everyone just because? That’s volunteering?

      Yeah, absurd. And I hate it.

    13. Greg Swann December 1st, 2008 8:37 pm

      Here’s what’s changing: We are losing the capability of lying about our lives to other people. The Times article I cited actually decries the fact that insurance fraud is becoming more difficult. If we ever get our act together by coordinating all the pan-tilt-zoom surveillance cameras there are out there, no one will kidnap a child or steal a car ever again. To pilfer an iPod is to invite a conviction. To swipe an iPhone is to assure it.

      Joe Strummer and I were on Usenet at the same time, though we didn’t know each other then. In those days, it was common for libertarians and patriot-types to rail against the idea of the cashless economy. I stopped carrying cash in 1995. I never touch the stuff, except in Las Vegas, where a cashless economy would make the epidemic tax evasion impossible. I don’t care that my every financial transaction can be tracked by my debit account. I like it. I have nothing to hide, and by never taking cash from my accounts, I constructively demonstrate that I have nothing to hide.

      The things that privacy activists rail about — like Amazon tracking my purchases in order to do a better and better job of offering me exactly what I want — are benefits, not burdens. If you fear government, as you should, then it were well to concentrate on the enemy with all the firepower, rather than on people who only want to do a better job of making money.

      But consider our own little world: Credit reports have a stupid time horizon. The idea of redemption incorporated in credit reports is a good thing, and my ideal polity is based on credit reporting as a means of resolving disputes. But it is no challenge at all to identify a recidivist compulsive gambler from a life-long credit report, and there is no reason to ignore the last 40 years of a borrower’s life just because the past five have been stable.

      And if the borrower’s answer is, “It’s none of your goddamned business!” — I want to know whose money is being lent.

      Unless you’re Dick Morris and Bill Clinton needs to discredit you among the drooling fools who watch the news, no one cares whose toes you suck in the sack. But if you’re fibbing to get an insurance policy or a home loan, things are only going to get more difficult — as they should.

    14. Teri Lussier December 1st, 2008 8:52 pm

      I agree with what you are saying.

      I also agree with my Granny who says “Leave something to the imagination.”

      It’s the all or nothing part that I bulk at, and I get that it’s going to be all someday.

      And I still hate it.

    15. Greg Swann December 1st, 2008 9:04 pm

      > If I email you privately and you post that email or cc a response, is that not forced public outing of what I thought was private?

      Plausibly. My counter-argument is that my email (and physical mail) is mine to do with as I choose. I do hope you don’t feel that I have abused your trust in carrying my responses to your mail to other people — since this was not my objective at all, not even close — but it does not even occur to me to warn people about this.

      But consider: You decide you’re annoyed with someone. You send a snippy email. Your email shows up on that person’s weblog. What reasonable expectation of privacy did you have? How would you have assured that something like that could not happen — at least not truthfully? Only by forbearing to send the email, yes? From whom do you propose to keep the secret of your scarlet locks?

      To be observable is potentially to be observed, and therefore potentially to be reported about. It’s just physics. Unless we are actually trying to hide something, it shouldn’t mean any more to us than it does to a dog or a tree or a rock.

      > Yeah, absurd. And I hate it.

      As wantonly public as I am about every detail of my life, people routinely tell lies about me. I don’t give a shit about that, either. I suspect my indifference drives them nuts, but I don’t care about that, either.

      What we have thought of as privacy until now was simply poor communication and costly data processing. By this juncture, all I can think of to say is something I said to you a long time ago: Cultivate indifference.

    16. Sean Purcell December 1st, 2008 9:24 pm

      @ Teri
      I have no clue what Sean is talking about
      I may go off on tangents, but you always bring me back. “Leave something to the imagination.” Your grandmother was a true romantic. :)

      @ Greg
      Cultivate indifference
      Solipsism defined in reverse.

    17. Teri Lussier December 1st, 2008 10:03 pm

      >My counter-argument is that my email (and physical mail) is mine to do with as I choose.

      Fair enough. I suppose it’s only mine until I send it off.

      >I do hope you don’t feel that I have abused your trust in carrying my responses to your mail to other people

      Nope. Greg, you are a man of integrity.

      >Unless we are actually trying to hide something, it shouldn’t mean any more to us than it does to a dog or a tree or a rock.

      You are right. But it does matter to me. It’s one of the little flaws that makes me human instead of dog, tree, or rock.

      However, I’ll embrace your world by announcing that I’m off to bed now. And I’ll keep my privacy by not revealing the type of jammies. :-)

    18. Greg Swann December 1st, 2008 10:15 pm

      Here’s what I did to my poor Beatrice last night:

      I love this car, but with 117,000 miles on her, I’m afraid State Farm’s going to want to junk her…

    19. Sean Purcell December 1st, 2008 11:11 pm

      I don’t want, ever, is to give the impression that I am trying to hide my imperfections. (Disclosure: I caused a car accident earlier this evening. No one was hurt, but the front end of my car was smacked up pretty good.)

      Your imperfections are part and parcel of your universe that I celebrate (and yours to relish, I might add :) ).

      Back to reality: I am sincerely relieved, Greg, that neither you nor anyone else was hurt.

    20. Teri Lussier December 2nd, 2008 5:18 am

      >I’m afraid State Farm’s going to want to junk her…

      No doubt. The bright side is that you are very fortunate that it was only a car.

      And the brighter side is that there’s never been a better time to buy a car! :-D

    21. Chris Johnson December 2nd, 2008 5:38 pm

      The counteraguement to the ‘ccing of others is this: sometimes you want to bounce an idea off of someone–a mere flickerthought to see how it sounds. And so to do CC others deprives you of the opportunity to be a sounding board.

      I myself was galled the first itme but now expect it and welcome transparancy. The more good minds that can vet ideas the better…provided that we know I play with thoughts/words/ideas whatever.

    22. Brian Larson December 2nd, 2008 7:23 pm

      Wow, what a great discussion! Philosphy, ethics, car crashes.

      I’m in Greg’s camp, I must say. I think secrets are cancerous. Hypocrite that I am, though, I still maintain quite a few of my own. What’s more, like a real estate broker, I’m a paid ‘secret-keeper.’ Tell me something in the context of our attorney client relationship, and I’m hard-pressed to disclose it without big consequences coming down on my head. (Even my partner does not know that a mutual friend consulted me about a drug charge her son was facing.)

      What’s scary to me is the folks arguing that stuff that is in the public record (property tax records, for example) should be re-privatized. Scholars like Solove and others suggest this. Legislatures struggle with it. I think public records access is critical for all sorts of things, but it is certainly critical for liquidity in the real estate market. I’m resigned to some degree of privacy, but open public records should be the rule of the road to the greatest extent possible.

    23. Teri Lussier December 2nd, 2008 8:00 pm

      >I’m in Greg’s camp, I must say. I think secrets are cancerous.

      Right then.
      Greg and Brian- no surprise birthday parties for either of you.

      Chris-
      >I myself was galled the first itme

      Why?

      It’s not that my emails have ever been abused, or any trust breached, it’s that I wasn’t asked, wasn’t offered a choice, that it was forced. Greg it’s not a matter of trust, it’s a matter of choice. You are celebrating the destruction of a choice. One less choice I have the responsibility of making. Hooray for efficiency.

    24. Greg Swann December 2nd, 2008 11:12 pm

      > You are celebrating the destruction of a choice.

      This is simply incorrect. The law of mail is ancient, and it is as I represented it. The contrary proposition would be that your having written to me binds me involuntarily to an agency relationship with you – a coerced condition of servitude. This is actual force.

      I will concede that my approach to mail might have taken you by surprise — and I have discussed my actual objectives with you, where I have not with Chris — but you cannot reasonably expect to have entered into a confidential relationship with me or with anyone absent prior negotiation.

      I don’t read my physical mail at all. Cathy handles all of it. It’s plausible to me that, someday, all of my email will be filtered by an assistant. In addressing any sort of mail to me, you are conceding my right to do with it as I choose. Any other formulation would deprive me of my spectrum of choices in penance for having unintentionally become the target of your correspondence.

      Do you see? The implication is that by presenting yourself at my mind’s doorstep, you have unilaterally imposed unchosen obligations upon my mental hospitality. This cannot be just, as I am sure you would agree if I made reciprocal claims. I cannot ask for your attention and simultaneously dictate what form that attention can take.

      In any case, this really has nothing to do with the issue that is the topic of this post. My unwillingness to allow for even the possibility that someone might misrepresent what I have said by limiting the number of extant copies of my responses is not systemic — although I would be mildly pleased if it were. As Chris says, the transparency is refreshing. And all the negotiation that is required is to begin a missive with, “This is just between us,” and it is and always will be.

      This is an interesting topic in itself, though. Liberty is my freedom to control my own behavior, not yours or anyone else’s. In sharing mail you send to me with others — which is not what I am actually doing — I am not depriving you of your right to keep your thoughts to yourself. You have already shared your thoughts by mailing them to me. But if your having sent mail to me imposes unchosen inhibitions on my behavior, then we have arrived at a position that is untenable, both politically and ontologically. Different people are different — and have every right to be different. I expect I am one of the most different people you have ever met, but one of the implications of our differences is that we have to work out our understandings of customs and practices. Nevertheless, I get to be who I am. It’s not for nothing that I am so strident in defending everyone else’s right to be who they are.

      In any case, you and Chris both have my apology for having taken you by surprise, one time each, by copying my replies to your email to other people. But after that first time, you both knew that I do this, that I do it almost all the time, and that I will only predictably not do it if you request confidentiality in advance. In this circumstance — perhaps unique to you, very common to me if only because people come to adopt my practices through dealing with me — your choice going forward is to accept me as I am or to shun me. I’m sure Chris understands this and you may as well: A serendipitous benefit of being who I am is that people who would annoy me and waste my time tend to avoid me altogether. The universe sorts itself out, if only we would let it. ;)

      I have three sisters, and I love you better than any of them, Teri. But in doing what I want with my own property, I am not depriving you of anything.

    25. Teri Lussier December 3rd, 2008 6:16 am

      Gah.

      >Do you see? The implication is that by presenting yourself at my mind’s doorstep, you have unilaterally imposed unchosen obligations upon my mental hospitality. This cannot be just, as I am sure you would agree if I made reciprocal claims. I cannot ask for your attention and simultaneously dictate what form that attention can take.

      I do see, really I do. I get the email/mail thing is one issue, not the topic of your post- I understand that- it was a tangent I veered off on looking for an example of what I was really trying to say- my apologies for taking this so far off course. And obviously if I had any problem with email at this point in time, or didn’t appreciate the transparency, or didn’t see and thoroughly enjoy the benefits of the spontaneous scenius that can erupt from such a thing, I’d have stopped emailing you long long long ago. Probably in a snit. ;-)

      Back to the subject. Here’s what I’m not following:

      >Liberty is my freedom to control my own behavior, not yours or anyone else’s.

      Absolutely! And I love this idea with every fiber of my being, and it’s what rocks my world. And by doing away with privacy of all sorts, I’m not able to choose to have or not have secrets, tell lies, do destructive things. I don’t do those things, I don’t want to do those things, but my having a choice, and then choosing not to do those things, gives me the freedom to choose to live one particular way, and the responsibility to choose wisely, and the joy from having made the decision.

      If I really don’t have a choice- how do I behave when no one is watching? Without privacy, how will we ever know? If I’m only nice because Santa is watching and won’t bring me presents if I’m naughty, not because I want to be nice, or if I’m only an ethical Realtor because I’ve joined up, not because I’m an ethical person, or if I only choose to live and let live because I fear jail, not because I value life… That’s a non-choice. I simply don’t see the difference here (here being your post, not the email tangent).

      A camera on every corner, a gps in my undies, my behavior is no longer a choice, it’s forced. Someone is controlling my behavior by taking away my options to behave or misbehave. I hate death and destruction, but to make the decision to honor life and love is such a glorious decision- why take that away from people?

      >I get to be who I am. It’s not for nothing that I am so strident in defending everyone else’s right to be who they are.

      Exactly Greg, and the shits of the world get that right as well, don’t they?

      >The universe sorts itself out, if only we would let it.

      That’s my point. We don’t need to do away with privacy for this to take place… How do people behave when they think no one is watching tells the story of that person.

      >I have three sisters, and I love you better than any of them, Teri.

      Gee whiz… :-)