Monday, June 4, 2001

Week of 06/04/2001

Our Love-Hate Relationship With Privacy
- by David Matthews 2

"I believe there is a limit beyond which free speech cannot go, but it's a limit that's very seldom mentioned. It's the point where free speech begins to collide with the right to privacy. I don't think there are any other conditions to free speech. I've got a right to say and believe anything I please, but I haven't got a right to press it on anybody else. .... Nobody's got a right to be a nuisance to his neighbors." - H.L. Mencken

"None of your business!"

Ah, the rallying cry for privacy!

We don’t like having people poke through our affairs… even if we don’t have any affairs for people to poke through.

Even the most exhibitionist of people have that one part of their lives that they keep to themselves. There are people who would parade about stark naked for the whole world to see, and yet they will be very quiet about what they do for the first few hours in the morning, or about that time they spend with their significant other. Ask them about that, and they’ll politely tell you that it is none of your business.

We all have those levels of comfort in our lives, that point that we’ll share with the world, and then we expect the world to just leave us alone.

Not everyone has the same level of comfort. Some of us, for instance, aren’t happy with having a webcam follow us through our meals, morning shower, and mid-morning constitutional. Some of us don’t want to have our video rentals and credit card purchases made public for any Tom, Dick, or Harry to dissect.

It’s not that we have anything to hide, but maybe we don’t want to have marketers call us at all points in the night to try to hustle us some useless insurance package. Maybe we don’t want to have our bible-thumping neighbors try to brow-beat us if they realized that we’ve signed up for the "Sexy Cheerleader Video of the Month Club". Perhaps our vegetarian-eating, anti-fur environmentalist neighbors would be infuriated to know that we eat red meat packaged in Styrofoam containers and have five fur coats in the closet.

It’s that little bit of privacy that helps keeps us civil. What our neighbors don’t know won’t come back to haunt us.

On the other hand, we can be incredibly voyeuristic. We’re curious to know everything we can about our neighbors, and the person down the street, and the people on the other side of the tracks, and what’s going on in the White House. MTV’s "Cribs" and "Video Diary", for instance, takes you into the personal lives of rap stars and other musicians. E! Television’s "Celebrity Homes" does the same thing for other celebrities. Both of them could give credit for Robin Leech and his "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" show, which showed the whole world just how well the good life is.

And that’s really the crux of this whole voyeurism thing, isn’t it? We want to know if other people are living life better than we are.

Ironic, isn’t it? We want to know everything we can about our neighbors, and yet we expect others to respect our own privacy.

And when it comes to voyeurs, there is nobody more inquisitive than those in the government. Our government wants to know EVERYTHING about us. They want to know how much money we make, how many jobs we have, what kinds of cars we have, what kind of house we live in, how much we spend on groceries, how much money are we saving for retirement, how far we drive to work every day, how many times we go to the bathroom. And if you think that the government is not interested in all of that, then you obviously were not one of the thousands of people who were shipped the LONG form of the 2000 Census.

Or how about those "Know Your Customer" banking regulations? Ever hear of those? Our government wanted explicit regulations in place that would require banks to create a database about all of your financial transactions. They wanted the banks to ask you as customers about where you got your money, and what you plan on using that money for. And our government wanted to have access to all of that information at ANY time, without a warrant or even notification.

There was quite a bit of outrage over those proposed regulations. After all, what business was it to have the government look into our financial transactions? We’re not criminals, so why should the government force the banks to treat us as criminals?

Well guess what? Not only were many of those regulations secretly put in place after all of the publicity died down, but now those same government regulators are trying to make this a GLOBAL activity... to be able to peek into any bank account around the world! They want to get rid of the confidentiality of long-established banking havens like Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.

You didn’t know about that, did you? Well, of course not! Because the government would tell you that it’s none of your business!

Besides, they say, they NEED to know these things so they can spot all of those criminals and miscreants who are out there in the world. After all, we know only bad people put their money in Swiss Bank Accounts, right? Well, bad RICH people anyways.

How about your online habits? Where do YOU go online?

Did you know, for instance, that certain websites have little text files called "cookies" that are put on your hard drive? These things are used by marketers to not only track how many times you’ve visited that site, but also which sites you came from, which sites you’re going to, what kind of computer you have, what kind of ISP you’re using, what kind of browser you’re using, right down to where you live!

You didn’t know that, did you? Well of course not! Because marketers would tell you that it’s none of your business! Just as they would say that it’s none of your business to know what they want to do with that information they collect on you!

And now there are those in our federal government who want to eliminate anonymous web surfing altogether! They feel that only bad people surf the net anonymously, and you have nothing to hide, right?

That was the rationality government officials around the world used when they forced a private anonymous service called "" to shut down their operations in the mid-1990’s. They believed that only terrorists, pedophiles, and drug traffickers used this service, so they forced the owner in Finland to either reveal all of the names of their for-free users or else shut down. He wisely chose to shut down.

Our ongoing battle with encryption is yet another example of Uncle Sam playing "Big Brother." When the creator of Pretty Good Privacy encryption wanted to get a patent for his work, the Department of Defense stopped it by classifying encryption in the same category as nuclear weapons! And when he simply released the program for free over the Internet, our government threatened to try and execute him for treason! Unconstitutional? You bet your ass it is!

Yet, this is the same federal government that outlawed the private sector from gathering online information from kids without their parent’s permission. The same federal government that still collects information about all of its online visitors, young or old, even when they are explicitly told by the President of the United States not to!

Hey, how about your cell phone? Did you know that a regulation by the Federal Communications Commission will force all cell phone makers to install global positioning devices in your cell phone so people can track you down to within 1000 feet of your location? You didn’t know about that, did you? Well of course not! The government would tell you that it is none of your business!

Let’s get brutally honest here… trusting the government with our privacy is like trusting a kleptomaniac with the family jewels. They’ll keep it safe, but only if THEY get to keep it.

If we want privacy, we have to not only insist upon it for ourselves, but for our neighbors as well. It is very easy for our government to give us the old line of "Oh, we’ll NEVER use it on YOU! We know you’re nice people! We only want to keep track of the BAD people!" The only problem is that when government makes such rules, there is no differentiating between "good" people and "bad" ones. To them, everyone is a "bad" person. Today it would be your next door neighbor.. and tomorrow, it would be you.

And don’t start in on this "Well, it helps law enforcement!" So would scrapping the US Constitution and turning America into a paramilitary police state, but you don’t hear too many people advocate that, do you?

There is a certain trade-off when it comes to public figures, no matter if you’re talking about a movie star, a sports figure, a centerfold model, or a politician. They choose to make a certain part of their lives public. That doesn’t mean that everyone else should be forced to have their lives made public too.

I realize that it is instinctive to be curious about the lives of others. When someone opens up a window shade, or a webcam, many of us are going to take a peek. However, there is a difference between someone leaving a shade open, and us forcing that shade to be open. Government certainly wants to force all of our window shades open, and keep them open… supposedly for our own good.

We need to tell them is what they often tell us… that it is none of their damn business!

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