Wednesday, June 12, 2013

What is Privacy?

Periodically here in God's Favorite Country we confuse ourselves over questions related to privacy.  We're prompted to do this when we "discover" that something (generally embarrassing) we consider our own business is made public or is a matter in which the government is interested or would have access to if it should become interested.  As to the latter, this is especially a concern in cases where the government has made a point of collecting information we deem "private" regardless of whether it has made use of that information, as it evidently has in the case of the National Security Agency and its vast consumption of information regarding our telephone calls and etc., a/k/a PRISM.

Of course our vigilant political representatives take advantage of these concerns when they arise, in pursuit of what they consider to be in our best interest--which is to say, their reelection.  This in itself can be somewhat embarrassing, as is the case with the blurting of the unfortunately named Rand Paul.  I think his heart may be in the right place on this issue, but he lacks any sense of...well, he just lacks sense.

I think we must acknowledge, though, that "privacy" is in the process of being redefined in these all too interesting times.  Most of what we do is being monitored, or at least logged, by someone.  Telephone service providers, Google, whoever operates the various cameras which seem to be omnipresent and record us walking or driving or waiting or shopping, and no doubt many others have a great deal of information regarding all of us.  Just what they do with it is uncertain, but I'm inclined to believe that much of what they do with it involves the acquisition of money.

Most of us know this is the case, at least in the "back of our minds."  But we don't seem to mind, at least until such time as we're confronted with the fact that others know what we did or said or wrote and are faced with the undeniable fact that we knew or should have known that we were providing them with the means by which they know.  Nothing is more irritating than the recognition of our own stupidity, except of course the consequences of our own stupidity.  However, until we're faced with that recognition or those consequences, we're quite content to expose ourselves, as it were, to the world at large using the technology available, because it is convenient or in some manner gratifying to do so.

There is a right of privacy which is recognized by the law.  Courts in this Great Republic have said so, and some of them have even found it lurking by implication in the Constitution itself.  This makes a certain sense, and some of the rights expressly given constitutional protection seem to relate to concerns which impact privacy, e.g. our right to hold religious beliefs without government intrusion, our right to withhold our private knowledge of what may incriminate us.  Given our peculiar fascination with all involving sex, we also see privacy come into play as something worthy of legal protection in the case of contraception, abortion, and obscenity and sodomy laws.  Many states have laws which provide a civil remedy to those whose privacy is infringed.

As a result there is nothing frivolous in maintaining that PRISM is an unwarranted intrusion into our privacy.  But one might wonder what difference it makes, since we voluntarily make this information available to private companies and the public generally so blithely. 

The answer can only be that the government is different from private companies and the public, and this is undoubtedly true.  Private companies may use the information we so willingly supply them to make money by taking ours, and the public may use the information to humiliate us or mock us, but the government can do even more than that if it wants to. 

Can't the government simply obtain such information from those who have it?  It can and does, as we have seen.  However, it's ability to do so should be subject to some check.  Requiring a warrant, some kind of impartial judicial or quasi-judicial review, is an imperfect check but would seem the best that is available.  Much as we want to prevent terrorism or crime, it would seem to make far more sense to do so in a manner that doesn't require the wholesale collection of data which may or may not be useful in preventative efforts.

At the least, the burden should be placed on the government to establish that wholesale collection of information is needed to effectively prevent whatever it is that is feared and would be adverse to us, and such claims should be subject to vigorous tests of verification.  Even if that is the case, though, there should be control and supervision beyond that available in the Executive Branch.

We have less and less of an expectation of privacy, and it is in the nature of private companies and the government to take advantage of us due to our electronic exhibitionism.  If we're not careful, there will be no right of privacy.

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