Someone's Watching

If consumers are annoyed with a merchant's monitoring, they can buy elsewhere. With the intrusive state, there is nowhere to go.

Privacy encompasses the real and virtual spaces where you can think your most heretical thoughts without the fear of social and political consequences and where you can seal the bonds of love and friendship. In Privacy, Garret Keizer grapples with the meaning and importance of maintaining places where we are left alone to think what we will, love whom we must, and bear the indignities of life's pratfalls.

But Keizer, a Harper's Magazine contributing editor, turns out to be a curmudgeonly and somewhat uncertain guide to the threats to privacy posed by the modern world—and he is no guide at all to practical proposals for countering those dangers. There are two chief sources of danger to our privacy: commerce (snooping by businesses eager to send targeted advertisements and spam through Web browsers and email) and government, with its myriad and burgeoning forms of surveillance and data-gathering.

With regard to modern commerce, Keizer grumps: "We would do well to ask if the capitalist economy and its obsessions with smart marketing and technological innovation cannot become as intrusive as any authoritarian state." Actually, no. If consumers become sufficiently annoyed with mercantile snooping and excessive marketing, they can take their business to competitors who are more respectful of privacy. Not so with the citizens of an intrusive state.

"If privacy is the right to be let alone, then technology is our ever-expanding ability to let nothing alone," Keizer writes. It is true that commercial enterprises now collect vast amounts of information concerning the activities, spending habits, and tastes of their customers. Most of the time the data are used to figure out how to sell something. Like millions of Americans, I carry "club" cards for grocery stores and pharmacies that tell the retailers what I buy, information I willingly surrender in exchange for discounts and coupons. I don't feel the need to guard my preference for a particular brand of soap from a retailer's prying eyes. Nearly all vendors make available their privacy policies, and if you don't like them, you can go elsewhere.

Other transactions and communications, of course, have greater significance. Political and religious dissidents, and even viewers of online pornography, will likely be more concerned about shielding their interests from scrutiny. While Keizer is certainly right that technology can enable the invasion of privacy, he doesn't acknowledge that technology can also guard it. Seekers of online privacy, for example, can take advantage of free anonymizing services like TOR, which masks the identities of computers connected to the Internet, and Cryptocat, which encrypts online chat sessions. "The central question is whether we hold privacy sacred enough to endure the inconveniences necessary to preserve it," Keizer says. That hundreds of thousands of people use TOR every day is evidence that many are already willing to endure inconveniences to preserve their privacy. And more tech-enabled privacy tools are on the way. That's all to the good, since the chief privacy problem is coming from the government.

In his 2009 book, American Privacy, Frederick S. Lane asserts: "At its core, the history of America is the history of the right to privacy." After all, what is the Fourth Amendment's guarantee—"the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated"—if not substantially a guarantee of the right to privacy?

Unfortunately, traditional defenses against government intrusion are being steadily eroded. Keizer cites Rule of Law, Misrule of Men (2010), where Harvard professor Elaine Scarry outlines how the misbegotten USA Patriot Act, passed in panic following the 9/11 atrocities, has turned the constitutional understanding of private citizens and open government upside down: "Our inner lives become transparent, and the workings of the government become opaque."

Keizer shares her concern about government surveillance, but—typically—offers little useful guidance, satisfying himself with condemning his fellow citizens as feckless: "It is not the Constitution that is being subverted by Big Brother so much as the will to resist, without which there never could have been a Constitution in the first place." Still, it's worth recalling the Pentagon's attempt to deploy Total Information Awareness, in which a gigantic data-mining enterprise would troll through commercial and government databases to generate data profiles of any American based on his credit-card purchases, travel itineraries, telephone records, email, medical histories, and financial information.

Public outrage supposedly stopped the program, yet it turns out that the National Security Agency is building a huge data center in Utah that may well realize the earlier program's surveillance goals. Even now, according to a 2010 article in the Washington Post, "every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications." News reports in July revealed that, in the past year alone, cellphone carriers responded to 1.3 million demands from law enforcement for subscriber records, including text messages and caller locations. Keizer asserts, rightly, that "the ultimate check on government as a whole is its inability to know everything about those it governs." State ignorance is its citizenry's bliss.

Keizer overplays the role of left-wing gadfly—he mentions Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Japanese-American internment during World War II, and other touchstones of government perfidy—but he does address matters of vital importance to all of us. "There are many good reasons to stand up for privacy," Keizer says, "some having to do with building a good society, others having to do with living a tolerable life." It would have been helpful if he had given more thought to just how we should go about standing up for privacy. Even so, his passionate exhortations may move readers themselves to think about defending their privacy more fiercely.

This review originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on August 15, 2012.

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  • Whiterun Guard||

    Thanks for slogging through that Mr. Dr. *---SCIENCE

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Hrm...seems to have cut off my comments...thanks squirrels.

    Thanks for slogging through that Mr. Dr. ---SCIENCE

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Hrm...seems to CONTINUE to cut off my comments...thanks squirrels.

    Thanks for slogging through that Mr. Dr. SCIENCE Editor.

    I guess you had to, but the day I take privacy advice from Keizer is the day I turn in my USB toaster for good. Former priests or the like are not someone you should listen to about bleeding edge technology, they'll invariably get it wrong. They always ignore white noise, flooding, dumping, inadvertent honeypots, brocading and mild divergence.

    Even Ron falls for the brute force ways to protect privacy (encrypting your chats is a sure way to draw attention...and once you're targetted, you will always be out-resourced). The surest way is to not be targetted in the first place.

    You hit the curmudgeon part on the head (though I haven't read Privacy, just basing it on his old pathetic Harper's article on privacy). He doesn't even cite the guys on the other side in that article, and I doubt he does in the book either. People would be advised to read Defense Intelligence Digest, or any of the NSA trade mags, look for what they're bitching about (or spending money on), and do more of that.

  • Ted S.||

    It could be worse. Go over to the Volokh Conspiracy and read any of Stuart Baker's posts.

  • thirtyandseven||

    ^word

  • strat||

    I was once on a debate panel with Mr. Baker back during the "crypto wars." The man is a gifted orator. Also a nice man if you're not on stage with him. Whiterun is right on the mark - there are people waxing about "privacy" but half of them don't even know how they're defining the term. The only one worse is "security," but professionals actually have some rules for how to use that word.

    I've thought a long time about both security and privacy professionally.This article is pointing out a blind spot that we see in a many other areas. People just don't think about the government when it creates the problem because someone else exploits it.

    I knew it was endemic when I saw that people in the military would have their SSNs PRINTED on their checks. Having been given an SSN (by the State), people use it. Of course it didn't help that the legend "NOT TO BE USED FOR IDENTIFICATION" was eventually removed from Social Security cards.

    The USG has a gift for creating tools that let the camel's nose into the tent. Then they stand back and claim innocence when their tool is perverted by someone else.

    Worse are the quasi-governmental entities who get to use the color of law to compel transactions that otherwise wouldn't be possible. Toll road tags are now being read for all sorts of other reasons, including fairly innocuous ones like traffic volume analysis. I wouldn't mind, but I have yet to see a case where someone asked me a priori if they could "repurpose" my personal data.

  • Fluffy||

    "We would do well to ask if the capitalist economy and its obsessions with smart marketing and technological innovation cannot become as intrusive as any authoritarian state."

    Actually, the real problem is that "consumers" think that the people they enter into economic transactions are their fucking slaves, and are bound and determined to treat them as such, for no better reason and justification than the fact that there are more consumers than sellers.

    If you come to a yard sale at my house and buy something from me, guess what? That's not "your" information to keep "private". I was fucking there, too. I fucking sold you that item. That's my information. I can't think of a single moral justification for commanding me to forget that you were there and bought something from me.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    What if I pay you extra to forget?

  • Fluffy||

    That would be a different and separate economic transaction.

    And if I then failed to live up to that contract, we'd have a straightforward contract tort to deal with. Not a violation of a "right to privacy" that extends to facts that are not actually private.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    See now, your neighbor has it as an automatic policy that he won't tell anyone about any transaction made at his yard sale.

  • Fluffy||

    Awesome!

    The question is whether not having such a policy means you are violating a basic human right.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    I don't think it is.

    The hilarious part of his statement is that I KNOW that he would get a thrill up his leg if 'they' would just 'pass a law against' corporate snooping.

    Like I said, I haven't read the book, but I'd bet dollars to donuts based on his previous writings that he's MUCH more against mercantile 'privacy violations' (despite the fact that they're ostensibly voluntary), than against that same Authoritarian State's privacy violations.

    You know, because they're for our own good. And intentions and what not.

    Also, I was hoping you'd counter your neighbors policy with putting your daughters in even skimpier bathing suits as they hawk your old Supertramp 8 tracks.

  • strat||

    You just made a good case for "one party consent" rules in the wiretapping context. Makes sense to me.

  • ||

    If consumers become sufficiently annoyed with mercantile snooping and excessive marketing, they can take their business to competitors who are more respectful of privacy. Not so with the citizens of an intrusive state.

    It is amazing how often this needs to be repeated. I am not a huge fan of the grocery stores that make you get a card, so I avoid shopping at those stores when it is convenient to do so. In theory, global citizens can country-shop but it isn't remotely equivalent. I think these people sometimes just reflexively feel the need to go "businesses are bad too, see?" to appeal to the corporashun haters out there, or feel like they are being unbiased or something.

    Valuing privacy goes hand in hand with respect for the individual, and sadly I think both are on the decline.

  • Fluffy||

    I think these people sometimes just reflexively feel the need to go "businesses are bad too, see?"

    I don't think it's that at all.

    These people are defining privacy as "people shouldn't know stuff about me" and want to extend that rule to information to information they have voluntarily shared by entering into an economic transaction with another person.

    "I'm allowed to remember that I went to Stop and Shop, but Stop and Shop isn't allowed to remember that I went there. Because that's fair." It's no more complicated than that.

  • ||

    Not that I'd put it past people to be that stupid, but that requires a pretty big logicfail. Where were these people for the last ten years of Amazon recommendations and targeted online ads and Google search suggestions and fucking Facebook? Online it is extra obvious that info you share with another party is just that.

    Although thinking back to the hue and cry about "fairness" and entitlement with any change to FB privacy settings does support your point...

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    "These people are defining privacy as "people shouldn't know stuff about me" and want to extend that rule to information to information they have voluntarily shared by entering into an economic transaction with another person."

    Kinda like people who think posting something to their public Facebook with 300 readers is supposed to be off-limits pillow talk.

  • strat||

    Of course this requires a certain willingness to engage in "life by contract" and to take personal responsibility, but my take is that it's really about what the agreement says. If a vendor promises not to disclose my information, I will hold them to that. If they don't, I may ask them to. God knows I've probably signed more NDAs than any other business document over the years.

    If we absolutely must have "regulation," simple rules about transparency of the policies would go a long, long way to making things better. I'm also convinced that's true in the "net neutrality" context. There are absolutely things that carriers do that make their service less desirable to me. My only beef is that they're not upfront about them.

  • ||

    is that actually Garret Keizer who's peeping through the somewhat amateurish glory hole?

  • SugarFree||

    "Amateurish" is right. All those ragged edges are just a bad idea.

  • Randian||

    When building your glory hole, consider a nice Ebony finish from Minwax and three coats of polyurethane coating to prevent splinters and to give it that slick look.

    It's a good thing.

  • fangfooo||

    Sounds way cool to me dude.

    www.Private-Anon.tk

  • Agile Cyborg||

    Data collected by benign entities that can be forced to hand it off to bureaucracies that can use this private information against the individual is where my ire begins. The crux of the issue here with personal data is the sharing aspect. Once you share compartmentalized information it takes on a different sheen based on the agency viewing it.

    For example, A grocery shop will greatly appreciate you purchasing 40 6-packs of S.N. Torpedos over the last 6 months but that same data will likely be viewed far differently by any number of law enforcement agencies against the backdrop of ANYTHING you do wrong. And this is just one angle. Once benign and compartmentalized data is breached by bureaucracies with nefarious purposes designed around the lies of social good we have a perfect storm for a true-life dystopian caste system.

  • Raven Nation||

    Kind of like the way digitizing health records in the 1990s was a HORRIBLE idea b/c it was going to screw up your insurance premiums, deny you health care, etc. etc.

    However, digitizing medical records now is BRILLIANT b/c it will enable the government to provide better care for you. And, IIRC, medical providers will have to provide digitized records to the government.

  • strat||

    I used to do a lot of office automation conversions in the 1980s. I told every client: If you have paper laying everywhere now, you'll have floppy disks laying everywhere later. (Kids, a floppy disk is a thing sort of like a USB memory stick, but flatter and easier to use as a drink coaster.)

  • jason||

    As long as the technology is developing the national agencies are getting into the personal life’s of the civilians which is a worry thing for the government. There are some number of law which you cannot break but un accountability of agencies is the main problem.

  • ||

    Most of the time the data are used to figure out how http://www.ceinturesenfr.com/c.....-c-19.html to sell something. Like millions of Americans, I carry "club" cards for grocery stores and pharmacies that tell the retailers what I buy, information I willingly surrender in exchange for discounts and coupons. I don't feel the need to guard my preference for a particular brand of soap from a retailer's prying eyes. Nearly all vendors make available their privacy policies, and if you don't like them, you can go elsewhere.

  • Ardelle||

    Like millions of Americans, I carry "club" cards for grocery stores and pharmacies that tell the retailers what I buy, information I willingly surrender in exchange for discounts and coupons. I don't feel the need to guard my preference for a particular brand of soap from a retailer's prying eyes. Nearly all vendors make available their privacy policies, and if you don't like them, you can go elsewhere.

  • Ardelle||

    Like millions of Americans, I carry "club" cards for grocery stores and pharmacies that tell the retailers what I buy, information I willingly surrender in exchange for discounts and coupons. I don't feel the need to guard my preference for a particular brand of soap from a retailer's prying eyes. Nearly all vendors make available their privacy policies, and if you don't like them, you can go elsewhere.

  • Francisco||

    Amendment's guarantee—"the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated"—if not substantially a guarantee of the right to privacy?

  • FD||

    "Keizer grumps: 'We would do well to ask if the capitalist economy and its obsessions with smart marketing and technological innovation cannot become as intrusive as any authoritarian state.'"

    Yes, we can ask that of a capitalist economy, Keizeer, just as soon as we have one.
    His establishment-liberal hackery is tiresome.
    Recently I was thinking of that nutcase Michael Savage, and his offensive "liberalism is a mental disease." Now of course Savage is out to sell his entertainment so I understand his hyperbolic clownery. But when I read these sophomoric, half-baked assessments of the Harper's crowd, it makes me think the right wing loon is onto something.
    They are unable to remotely comprehend their own hypocrisy, nor to even understand what it really means to just leave me the hell alone. In all respects.

  • FD||

    And to clarify, I don't mean Bailey's assessment of Harper's. I mean Harper's moronic assessment of the corporatist environment.

  • ||

    "Seekers of online privacy, for example, can take advantage of free anonymizing services like TOR"

    Tor only anonymizes the channel (probably). If you care to prevent your online activity being collected in various places you don't intend it to go (gee, why does my browser have to go to twitter, facebook, google, reddit, quantserve, and whatever the hell chartbeat is just to read reason.com?) you're going to have to be much more thorough and work at blocking http requests and taking care not to leak identity clues. Either that or don't visit anything that seems scummy (no offense gillespie). But none of those urls are gov.com so no worries, eh?

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