The Privacy Slope

Slippery

I read with interest Ronald Bailey’s book review of Privacy by Garet Keizer in the Wall Street Journal ( 16 August 2012) .

In a nutshell, privacy is founded in the Constitution’s 4th Amendment: “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”

I would define privacy as the freedom–to think, to feel, and to act as ourselves (within ethical boundaries) without fear of intrusion, revelation, or reprisal.

In other words, it should only be our business who we love, what we are interested or believe in, who we vote for, what we choose to do with our lives, and more.

I think in grade school, the children generally sum it up well when they playfully chant: “Mind your own BI,” where BI is used for business (or biziness). 🙂

According to Keizer, the danger to privacy come into play from two main sources:- Commerce–who want to sell you something and

– Government–that needs to surveil for security and law enforcement purposes

After 9/11, their was a perceived need for greater surveillance to enhance homeland security, and with advances in technology and communications (smartphones, Internet, social media, etc.), the ability to snoop became far easier.

In 2002, the DoD program for Total Information Awareness (TIA) was an attempt to know everything (i.e. total) about those who would do us harm, but fears about this capability being used against the innocent, quickly required a rethinking or perhaps, just a rebranding.

Some say that the new NSA mega data center in Utah is the fulfillment of the TIA dream–according to the Washington Post, already in 2010 NSA intercepted and stored “1.7 billion emails, phone calls, and other types of communications.” Further, law enforcement demanded records from cellphone carriers on 1.3 million subscribers “including text messages and caller locations” over just the last year’s time.

Keizer cautions that “the ultimate check on government as a whole is its inabilityto know everything about those it governs”–i.e. without the people holding the cards, there is the risk of spiraling into a Big Brother totalitarian society–goodbye democracy!

I think Keizer perhaps oversells the fear of government surveillance and underemphasizes intrusion from business–his thinking is that “If consumers are annoyed with a merchant’s monitoring, they can buy elsewhere.”

But what Keizer misses is that industry as a whole has moved toward the use of technology–from club cards and promotions to use of Internet cookies, RFID, and more–to systematically track consumers and their buying behavior and that information is readily captured, packaged, used, and sold for marketing and sales–as well as to the government!

As a common practice now, where is a consumer to go that will shield them from hungry business looking to capture market share and earn nice profits?

At the same time, while government surveillance can certainly be misused and abused with terrible consequences for individuals society—there are potentially a lot of people looking over the shoulder of those carrying out public programs–and this “sunlight”–where and when it shines–can help to prevent bad things happening. The problem is that the system is not perfect, and there are always those program people who act of out of bounds and those watchers who are ineffective and/or dishonest.

Overall, it’s a zero sum game, where those that hype up security and capitalism, can tramp down on privacy, and vice versa.

In totality, we can never just assume everything will be okay when it comes to privacy and how information is used, but we have to be active citizens helping ensure that right things are done, the right way.

For regular, hardworking, decent citizens, there is a definite need to safeguard privacy–and technology can be helpful here with anonymizers, encryptors, and other shielding tools

For the bad guys, I would imagine, no question, that the government will continue to develop the means to thwart their secrecy and planning to inflict harm on the American people.

For business, it’s okay to capture consumer information and sell, but pour it on to thick and people will think twice about your company’s ethics and brand–and even a lawsuit may be in the making.

Yes, privacy is a slippery slope, and not only can a person’s self be revealed or used inappropriately, but the voyeur can get burned too if they overdo it.

(Source Photo: Andy Blumenthal)

>Architecture of Freedom

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In the United States, we have been blessed with tremendous freedom, and these freedoms are enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. However, in many countries around the world, people do not share these basic freedoms and human rights.

Now in many countries, the limitation and subjugation of people has extended from the physical to the virtual world of the Internet. People are prevented through filtering software from freely “surfing” the Internet for information, news, research and so forth. And they are prohibited from freely communicating their thoughts and feelings in email, instant messages, blogs, social networks and other communications media, and if are identified and caught, they are punished often through rehabilitation by hard prison labor or maybe just disappear altogether.

In fact, many countries are now insisting that technology companies build in filtering software so that the government can control or block their citizen’s ability to view information or ideas that are unwanted or undesirable.

Now however, new technology is helping defend human rights around the world—this is the architecture for anonymity and circumvention technologies.

MIT Technology Review (May/June 2009) has an article entitled “Dissent Made Safer—how anonymity technology could save free speech on the Internet.”

An open source non-profit project called TOR has developed a peer to peer technology that enables users to encrypt communications and route data through multiple hops on a network of proxies. “This combination of routing and encryption mask a computer’s actual location and circumvent government filters; to prying eyes, the Internet traffic seems to be coming from the proxies.”

This creates a safe environment for user to browse the Internet and communicate anonymously and safely—“without them, people in these [repressive] countries might be unable to speak or read freely online.”

The OpenNet Initiative in 2006 “discovered some form of filtering in 25 of 46 nations tested. A more current study by OpenNet found “more than 36 countries are filtering one or more kinds of speech to varying degrees…it is a practice growing in scope, scale, and sophistication.”

Generally, filtering is done with some combination of “blocking IP addresses, domain names… and even Web pages containing certain keywords.”

Violations of Internet usage can result in prison or death for treason.

Aside from TOR, there are other tools for “beating surveillance and censorship” such as Psiphon, UltraReach, Anonymizer, and Dynaweb Freegate.

While TOR and these other tools can be used to help free people from repression around the world, these tools can also be used, unfortunately, by criminals and terrorists to hide their online activities—and this is a challenge that law enforcement must now understand and contend with.

The architecture of TOR is fascinating and freeing, and as they say, “the genie is out of the bottle” and we cannot hide our heads in the sand. We must be able to help those around the world who need our help in achieving basic human rights and freedoms, and at the same time, we need to work with the providers of these tools to keep those who would do us harm from taking advantage of a good thing.