July 10, 2003

Privacy



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I am by no means the first person to comment on the fact that in the 21st Century and the Information Age, one of the major issues that we will face is that of privacy. As it becomes more and more possible to collect information and monitor any given person via electronic means, keeping a database of where they live, where they work, where they go, what they buy, and so forth and so on--it will be more and more possible to almost passively allow computers to build databases detailing our activities on a daily basis, records to be accessed whenever someone with access (read: government and industry) so desires.

Think about it: records are kept on where you live (city records), where you work and how much you make (IRS), where you go (trail of credit card receipts, hotel registrations, airplane ticket purchases, gas purchases), what you buy (receipts connected to your credit, debit, and bank cards; records from "membership cards" at supermarkets, rental stores, etc. which keep close track of every purchase), what information you access on the Internet (cookies and other tracking information), email you send, whom you talk to and what you talk about (if your email is unencrypted, it can be legally read at many points along its path), medical records, bank records, credit histories, work records, and much, much more.

Computers, able to collate this data by keeping a record of all references to you, will be able to sift through the gargantuan heaps of data on the Internet and other sources and compile data which can be smoothed out manually to build an incredibly detailed record of all your activities--more than you can even recall yourself. That database will be available to be used against you (can you even imagine how that kind of information could or would ever possibly be used for you? Not likely). It will be available to find you, pigeonhole you, persuade you, perhaps control you in subtle ways. Or to blackmail you threaten you, expose you, embarrass you, catch you doing things you should be able to do in private without hindrance, but that others may not approve of.

The right to privacy against this is under concerted attack. Laws are being drafted (thankfully, against the tide of the courts) that can tell you what kind of person you can be, what activities you can take part in between consenting adults in private places, deciding what you are allowed to watch, read, do or speak about, and with whom. Some of it is not legislated; some is simply discouraged with the force of law or popular public pressure. What places in the world you are allowed to go to, what kind of persons you can associate with, what opinions you can hold, what statements you can make even semi-privately. In the building atmosphere of fear, simply speaking out publicly on your rights as an American citizen can get you branded as unpatriotic, making people less liable to talk to you, meet you, hire you, do business with you. We see it around us, with so many Americans getting angry at those who would question the government, shouting others down even with the threat of violence for doing no more than stating a peaceful, rational opinion. Take, as one example, the man who runs the baseball hall of fame canceling a Hall of Fame event because he didn't like the political views of one actor who had spoken out against the war. Here, an event that should belong to all of us, the celebration of our national pastime, was hijacked by one or a small number of people to do harm to a person who was simply exercising his constitutional rights and asking the country not to go to war. Turning against people for their views takes place every day at the personal level, and so we do not often hear about it widely and publicly, ergo the celebrity example; but this drama does play out all over our country. The point is that by doing things which harm no one and which are our right as Americans, we can be hurt in real ways, denied opportunities, have things dear to us taken away. A lack of privacy is the means to widen what we can be criticized for, penalized for, and threatened concerning; the less privacy we have, the more control others have over us.

Privacy is part of our birthright. Neo-conservatives, claiming to want government out of our lives but in truth hoping they will interfere deeply but selectively, tell us that there is no express right to privacy in the Constitution; Thom Hartmann, however, said it very well in his column at commondreams.org:

In his dissent in the Texas sodomy case, Thomas wrote, "just like Justice Stewart, I 'can find [neither in the Bill of Rights nor any other part of the Constitution a] general right of privacy,' or as the Court terms it today, the 'liberty of the person both in its spatial and more transcendent dimensions.'"

Echoing Thomas' so-called conservative perspective, Rush Limbaugh said on his radio program on June 27, 2003, "There is no right to privacy specifically enumerated in the Constitution." Jerry Falwell similarly agreed on Fox News.

Limbaugh and Thomas may soon also point out to us that the Constitution doesn't specifically grant a right to marry, and thus license that function exclusively to, say, Falwell. The Constitution doesn't grant a right to eat, or to read, or to have children. Yet do we doubt these are rights we hold?

And he equally well commented on how that right indeed exists, in so many different ways, in the constitution:

[T]the Constitution wasn't written as a vehicle to grant us rights. We don't derive our rights from the constitution.

Rather, in the minds of the Founders, human rights are inalienable - inseparable - from humans themselves. We are born with rights by simple fact of existence, as defined by John Locke and written by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," the Founders wrote. Humans are "endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights...." These rights are clear and obvious, the Founders repeatedly said. They belong to us from birth, as opposed to something the Constitution must hand to us, and are more ancient than any government.

The job of the Constitution was to define a legal framework within which government and business could operate in a manner least intrusive to "We, The People," who are the holders of the rights. In its first draft it didn't even have a Bill of Rights, because the Framers felt it wasn't necessary to state out loud that human rights came from something greater, larger, and older than government. They all knew this; it was simply obvious.

Thomas Jefferson, however, foreseeing a time when the concepts fundamental to the founding of America were forgotten, strongly argued that the Constitution must contain at least a rudimentary statement of rights, laying out those main areas where government could, at the minimum, never intrude into our lives.

We have the right to privacy; there is no question. At minimum, we have the right to do what we please, as consenting adults, in the privacy of our own homes, if it does not infringe on the rights or safety of others. We have the right not to be tracked, databased and kept close tabs on without our knowledge or consent. We have the right to say and do as we please as long as it does not reasonably infringe the rights and freedoms of others, and we have the right not to be constrained by small people who would absurdly abuse the definition of "reasonable." (The Baseball Hall of Fame president would likely deem it "reasonable" to cancel a popular public event because an actor lobbied against war on the grounds that any dissent "harms" our troops and is "unpatriotic." All that proved was just how the meaning of "reasonable" can be distorted by someone with an agenda).

Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, who often speculated on the shape of society in the future, once wrote:

"When a place gets crowded enough to require ID's, social collapse is not far away. It is time to go elsewhere."
Perhaps Heinlein was much more prophetic on this point than many people gave him credit for. Unfortunately, we don't have many places to move on to from here, so instead we have to try to turn things around here and now, or at least fight the oncoming tide.

Posted by Luis at July 10, 2003 06:21 PM
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