October 16th, 2013

Privacy On the Internet

The right to privacy doesn’t appear in the constitution and the concept of privacy in the United States was not clearly legally defined until the late 19th Century. For constitutional constructionists, there is not much help in the constitution on privacy, but most people have some idea that citizens have some rights. Privacy is similar to free speech. There is a fine line between free speech which is protected and hate speech, which can be prosecuted. The same applies to privacy. Suspected criminals do not have the same rights to privacy as law-abiding citizens. The difficulty is distinguishing between free and hate speech, law-abiding citizens and probable criminals. I don’t want to discuss the exact criteria applied in these situations. I would rather assume that there is a clear and accepted distinction and it is applied equitably. (I don’t necessarily agree with that assumption, but it is another day’s discussion.)

I was raised on a rural telephone party line. My parents did not get a private line until after I graduated from college. On a party line, you never know which of your neighbors are listening; people rudely interrupt conversations and perform other unspeakable mischief. This is important because it shaped my attitude toward communications. I have come a long way from the party-line days, but in my gut, I am still on that party line where privacy was absent. Laws against eavesdropping and interference were printed on the second page of the telephone directory. The laws threatened fines and imprisonment, but everyone ignored the laws anyway because breaking the law was easy, pleasant, and hard to prove. Speaking on the phone was the same as making a sign and posting it on the roadside for the neighbors to read.

Did that diminish the value of telephone service? Some, but people were willing to sacrifice to pay for a telephone, which shows the service had value. I have always had the same attitude toward all computer based communication, including cell phones. You never know who might be listening, reading, or recording. I know this to be true because I know the technology well enough to know that accessing information on any computer or communication system is possible for someone with the right knowledge and privilege, and knowledge and privilege can be obtained in both legitimate and illegitimate ways. And I also know people well enough to know that the laws printed in the front of the telephone book are easily and often ignored and the same goes for other privacy laws. Further, I am skeptical of technological efforts to ensure privacy. If a person can think up a surefire privacy protection, another person can think up a way around it.

What about the NSA and their snooping? The first question is whether or not it is an invasion of privacy. Although I think the question is worthy of examination and debate, I will stick with my assumption that it is decided and postulate that some types of NSA data gathering are clearly invasive. Consequently, I expect a regulation will be written, the courts will pass down a ruling, or Congress will enact a statute that will force NSA to back off. Or perhaps the invasion will be deemed so egregious that the NSA will be dismantled.

Will I then rest easy that my electronic conversation is private? Not on your life. Some other branch of the US government, some other government, some criminal organization, even some business analytics firm will appear to grab the invasive baton. Worse, this is a democracy and the populace is fickle. Laws change. What is illegal invasion today may be legal tomorrow.

From my experience with technology and the laws on the second page of the telephone directory, I assume that privacy cannot be assured by laws, technology, or human nature. Letters can be opened, seals can be resealed, and cyphers can be broken. I don’t say anything over any telephone that I don’t want overheard; I don’t put anything in an email or a text message that I would not want broadcast to the world; I store my private data in a safe hidden in a corner of the basement. Most important, I think about what is private to me and what doesn’t matter and treat them accordingly. Consequently, my safe is nearly empty and I generally say what I want over the Internet. Electronic communications are all worth using, but they are not and never will be private.

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