Here’s the Thing About Privacy

It used to be really easy. If we wanted privacy, we could just stay at home, hide under our covers and keep to ourselves. Alone. No problem, unless we wanted to work for a living.

PrivacyIt’s funny, but while we complain about privacy constantly, are we really worse off than before? I mean, it used to be that our bosses knew everything about us, and if we didn’t answer their questions, we could be fired and there was nothing we could do about it. And when I say everything, I mean everything. They could ask about your marriage, your kids, how much your mortgage and car payment were and anything else they wanted to know about. If you were a woman, they could ask whether or not you planned on getting pregnant. And those of us who remember those days, in order to get a job in the first place, you had to fill out a huge 5-10 page application, with every personal detail you could imagine. And we willingly gave them that information, because we needed a job.

On the other hand, I know what you’re thinking. At least “the government” didn’t have a truckload of information on us, right? All they had was our name, address, valid phone number and where we worked. Well, that, and information about every dollar we made, where we made it and all of our banking information. Oh, yeah, and we also had a driver’s license, so they knew where we were and every time a cop stopped us. Of course, if the government wanted to know anything about us, there was J. Edgar Hoover, who could just tap your phone, if he wanted to, and there was little to nothing to stop him. How did he get your phone number? Why, the phone book, of course. Surely you remember phone books. Every home in the country had a local phone book in it, and they hung below every pay phone, which meant that anyone who knew your name could find out your number and where you lived. The main public library in every major city also had phone books from all over the country, so if someone in New York wanted to know exactly where you lived in Seattle, he could find out and send you flowers, or something else. If you wanted to be anonymous, you could be “unlisted,” but you had to pay the phone company extra every month for the privilege.

But hey! At least they didn’t have your cell phone’s metadata. Phew, right?

This is another area in which a lot of people will tell you how much better things were in the olden days, and like most other times they tell you that, they’re lying to you. Things were only better in the old days if you were white, a man and the job was deemed suitable for you. If you were not a white male, you could count on people mostly leaving you alone. Of course, if a police officer didn’t like you, or the FBI thought of you as “subversive,” they could keep tabs on you, alongside your boss.

I do agree that, in many ways, we have less privacy these days than we used to have, but if you think the problem is the government, think again. The culprit is a combination of technology and ourselves.

That’s it, folks. It’s yet another case of “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

I love technology. Technology is awesome. I love the fact that Google and Apple are keeping track of what I do online, so that when I search for something, like a restaurant or a movie, they don’t waste my time with tons of irrelevant results that have nothing to do with me. I love being able to ask Siri where something is and almost instantly getting turn-by-turn directions to that location. I think it’s great to be able to pay for things using my phone and a thumbprint, and not having to hand a card to a sales clerk, who might try to use the number to steal from me. I love being able to blog using my iPad and have thousands of people read it.

imageI imagine that most people who use these things love the convenience, as well, but everything comes with a cost, and that cost is a small measure of privacy. They call it the information superhighway for a reason, and while you should be able to expect personal communications and information to remain private, you cannot expect the public part of your travels on the Internet to be private, any more than you should expect your privacy to be protected as you walk on a sidewalk or drive down the highway. If you go to the Gap to buy a pair of shorts, the only expectation of privacy you can expect surrounds your payment information. Of course, back in the day when people wrote a lot of checks, everyone around them and the cashier could catch a glimpse of your personal information, including your address, phone number, and your driver license number, not to meniton your bank balance.

And yet, we have made a hero out of Edward Snowden, who has actually invaded the privacy of more people than the NSA ever has. The NSA got metadata; a huge list of phone numbers. Without the numbers of suspected terrorists, they can’t even tell who you called, and they get no personal information on you whatsoever, without demonstrating probable cause and obtaining another warrant to do that, which means, while it’s secret to you and me, it’s not without oversight.

If you think the government is your biggest privacy problem, think about this:

  • Have you ever noticed that, when you search for something on the Internet, you see a lot of ads for the same thing as you surf elsewhere? That’s not the government.
  • When you shop on websies like Amazon, with one-click ordering, don’t you wonder where your information is? That’s not government.
  • Whenever you hashtag something on social media, notice how many “promoted” Tweets or ads you see in your various timelines. That’s not government.
  • Outside of the Internet, consider how many stores you go into where you can’t get sale prices unless you carry a card with your personal information attached. That’s not the government.

We really have to be realistic about privacy. We have the right to privacy, to be sure. But as with all rights, there is a balance between rights and safety. You have the right to free speech, but you don’t have a right to threaten the president. You have the right to bear arms, but it’s subject to federal and state regulations to protect others. You have a right to do what you want with your property, subject to zoning laws. And you have a right to use your phone to call anyone you want. but if you are conspiring or plotting to kill innocent people, the government has the power and a duty to find out about it.

Whether the NSA is combing through anonymous metadata to find out who’s been calling bad guys abroad or the CDC is trying to find out who patient zero is during a Zika outbreak, we have to balance privacy and security. There should be warrants and oversight, and there are. And the government should never be given the benefit of the doubt. However, until someone can show credible evidence that Americans are being targeted, arrested and prosecuted without probable cause by the acquisition of very basic, publicly available information, it’s difficult to see a strong privacy violation here. And the amount of data doesn’t matter, either. There are 300 million people and nearly a half trillion phone numbers in this country right now; of course, the database will be massive. By the same token, if they’re actually violating privacy, it wouldn’t matter if there were five cases.

If we truly want total privacy, then we’ll all have to do better protecting it. We give up our privacy almost daily, willingly. It’s difficult to take an argument of a privacy violation seriously when you willingly cough up your personal data to get a dime off a bottle of coffee creamer. If you’re like me, and you like the convenience of the modern age,you have to understand, the bad guys like it, too. We have to go after bad guys and save innocent lives. On this, I’ll just ask the same question I always ask; what’s the alternative? How do we find these people without searching high and low for them? Again, I’m uncomfortable with them doing this without oversight, but if they get warrants and report to Congress on a regular basis, there is oversight, so wait for evidence of a breach.

And one more thing, to those of you who LOVE to quote Benjamin Franklin, he said “essential” liberties. That essential is a qualifier. No one has absolute liberty in everything they do. No one has the liberty to converse and conspire with terrorists to blow up buildings and kill people. I think everyone would agree. But again; let’s see an alternative method for finding out who these people are that doesn’t use data mining, and we’ll talk.

About Milt Shook

A writer with more than 45 years in the political game (and let's face it, it is a game). I am a liberal because facts have a liberal bias, and I really like facts. If you like facts, you'll like this blog. If not, you'll have a hard time.


Here’s the Thing About Privacy — 1 Comment

  1. “… but everything comes with a cost, and that cost is a small measure of privacy. …”
    But — it’s not a ‘small’ measure, it’s almost all of your privacy.
    At this time, it’s not being used massively against us little people. That could change in an instant.
    The prevention needs to start way before it happens and it’s likely past that point already. The so-called “Patriot Act” is when the erosion began and nothing is being done to reverse that in any meaningful way.