Monday, June 10, 2013

Private parts

By Mustang Bobby

The ever-insightful digby leads us to an article by Daniel J. Solove in the Chronicle of Higher Education from 2011 wherein the discussion about privacy and why it matters is discussed. In short, it calls into question the trope that we hear whenever something like news of the N.S.A. looking into the data of every phone call ever made hits the headlines: “I’ve got nothing to hide.”

To describe the problems created by the collection and use of personal data, many commentators use a metaphor based on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.Orwell depicted a harrowing totalitarian society ruled by a government called Big Brother that watches its citizens obsessively and demands strict discipline. The Orwell metaphor, which focuses on the harms of surveillance (such as inhibition and social control), might be apt to describe government monitoring of citizens. But much of the data gathered in computer databases, such as one’s race, birth date, gender, address, or marital status, isn’t particularly sensitive. Many people don’t care about concealing the hotels they stay at, the cars they own, or the kind of beverages they drink. Frequently, though not always, people wouldn’t be inhibited or embarrassed if others knew this information.

Another metaphor better captures the problems: Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Kafka’s novel centers around a man who is arrested but not informed why. He desperately tries to find out what triggered his arrest and what’s in store for him. He finds out that a mysterious court system has a dossier on him and is investigating him, but he’s unable to learn much more. The Trial depicts a bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes that uses people’s information to make important decisions about them, yet denies the people the ability to participate in how their information is used.

The problems portrayed by the Kafkaesque metaphor are of a different sort than the problems caused by surveillance. They often do not result in inhibition. Instead they are problems of information processing—the storage, use, or analysis of data—rather than of information collection. They affect the power relationships between people and the institutions of the modern state. They not only frustrate the individual by creating a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, but also affect social structure by altering the kind of relationships people have with the institutions that make important decisions about their lives.

The question is not whether or not I or anyone else has something or nothing to hide. We all do, whether it’s our credit card statement or or web-browser history, and no matter what it is, the idea behind a country founded on a Bill of Rights that includes the statement “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated” should be taken as least as seriously as the one about the well-regulated militia.

Simply put, the only person who can decide for me what’s private and what’s not is me. I can go on Facebook and tell the world — or at least those who know me — what I had for dinner last night, what movie I saw last week, and so forth. I can even tell you if I’m in a relationship or not or where I work and who I work with. Those are my choices, though, and I made them freely. But the idea of things that I choose to keep private being subject to scrutiny by other people and without my knowledge or consent is offensive not because they might find some deep dark secret but because I’m the one who is supposed to be the one who decides that, not someone else.

I may indeed have nothing to hide. But that’s for me to decide.

(Cross-posted at Bark Bark Woof Woof.)

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