Privacy and Security in the Digital Age

I came across an article on Wired.com (no affiliation) today that struck a cord. It’s Time to Drop the ‘Expectation of Privacy’ Test is the title of the article. And after reading and thinking about it for some time I’ve come to a few conclusions.

  1. Government can’t save us from ourselves.
  2. People are stupid.
  3. People with power are dangerous.
  4. Lawyers and Politicians are people and they have power.

OK, I’ll confess, I knew this all along but the discussion of privacy in the Digital Age gave me an excuse to highlight these truisms.

What’s wrong?

In this equation it’s assumed, security + privacy = null. And security and privacy are both defined as perfect — perfectly secure and perfectly private. The assumptions of the arguments always go unstated, but the argument has been spiraling out of control because these variable haven’t been defined properly. What is a reasonable expectation of security? What is a reasonable expectation of privacy?

Security

Let’s first tackle the question “What is a reasonable expectation of security?”. As I stated above, I feel our problem with balancing security and privacy comes from our unreasonable wants, desires, and needs for perfect security. We are blinded by some Utopian dream-world where there is no crime and people do not die from the misdeeds of others. I hate to be the one to harsh your mellow, but that will not come to pass during this evolutionary stage of our species. We will have to be very different, physically and emotionally — so different, I imagine we’ll be a new species by then, another branch of the evolutionary tree — before we see this particular, violence-free, utopian, future.

The question remains. And as I write this I struggle with the answer, can reasonable security be defined by body count? Can we say a reasonable expectation of security be that no more people die in terrorist acts than die on the roadways in car accidents? Or do we look at it by incident? Can we say that our reasonable expectation of security is that no more than one terrorist act take place within the borders of a state per year? Every two year? Every five years?

Now I see the dilemma. As a species we have probably lived in communities for safety for too long. The world is just not safe and no matter what we do, we will never make it a perfect place where one will not be harmed by the actions of another. People die all the time. People die going to the grocery. People die going fishing. The government can not give you eternal life. The government can not make you perfectly safe. It is true that the government can do some things to help insure you’re not mugged, raped or murdered. I’ve seen it happen. A cop on every street corner in the 80’s made NYC streets safer. Streets are public and public implies the lack of privacy.

I personally like the idea of the body count criteria. I also like correlating terror-deaths with traffic-deaths. Sure, the horror of 9/11 was that most of the people who died, died at their desks at work. They thought they should be safe at work. But if you look at traffic fatalities, you can die on the interstate driving to work. You should be safe in your car, right? But traffic deaths we’re not outraged over. Probably because of the lack of intent to do harm. Negligence comes close to producing those feelings of outrage; drunk drivers come to mind for example. But still, 2000 dead on our roadways, no problem. 2000 dead and six months or more of constant media attention and we all collectively scream that we can’t have that now, can we?

Privacy

I agree that there shouldn’t be a test for privacy, it should be defined and guaranteed by our legislature. How would you define privacy though? The most basic communication occurs between just two people. Any personal communication between two people is definitely private communication no matter what circumstances or setting it happens in. If I’m talking to a girl I just met at a bar, our conversation is private. If I’m talking to a friend in the park, our conversation is private. If I’m talking to a stranger at a hot dog stand, our conversation is private. Could the conversation be overheard by a third party, yes. If that third party was a representative of the government, should that information overheard be admissible in court? No. Here I make the distinction between knowing, and officially acting on that knowledge.

But there are so many ways that two people can communicate: speech, sign language, e-mail, SMS text messaging, cell phone, fax, POTS land line phones, IP telephony, etc. Do we define all cases and methods of communication or do we just simply say that the conversation taking place was between two people and cannot be listened in on without a warrant? Warrants can no longer specifically be for ‘wire taps’, or for opening e-mail, or any other specific thing. There needs to be a new warrant in the digital age. One that allows the government agent to listen to a particular person, no matter what the setting, no matter what the method of communication. A digital-age-warrant. An official court document stating that this individual’s right to privacy has been temporarily remanded (a specific and short time frame) for the greater good of the society. I am all for letting law enforcement do it’s job, but I’d also like some checks and balances. Tell me again, who watches the watchmen?

Congress is the answer

Now I see how laws grow to volumes. I haven’t even covered conversations of small groups. Declarations of privacy, e.g. “Don’t tell anyone, but…” “This is just between us…” and the plethora of unthought of situations and circumstances. All of what we do as a species is communicate in one form or another. I don’t write laws for a living, so here I think I’ll leave that up to the people who do. Congress must act to protect our privacy. Congress must act to make our privacy a right. We should guarantee this as an amendment to our constitution. It is such a basic human right that many of us assume it is somehow guaranteed already.

Privacy must be paramount. Liberty must prevail. If you want to be secure, the government can put you in a small room, give you cable TV and Internet service, feed you three square meals a day, and let you exercise in the yard once every third day — it’s called prison.

The government can not ensure your protection. Surprisingly, the entity who has the most control over your safety and well being is you. Do you want to not feel like a sheep or lemming in public? Train yourself in self defense. Are you fearful that an attacker might use a weapon against you? Train with firearms and get a concealed carry permit. Take control of your life. Be the master of your own destiny.

Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither. -Benjamin Franklin

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