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The Privacy Illusion 198

LoLobey writes "Scott Adams has an entertaining entry on his Dilbert Blog about the perception of privacy. He writes, 'It has come to my attention that many of my readers in the United States believe they have the right to privacy because of something in the Constitution. That is an unsupportable view. A more accurate view is that the government divides the details of your life into two categories: 1. Stuff they don't care about. 2. Stuff they can find out if they have a reason.' His post is written in response to some reader comments on another entry about privacy guardians and how swell life would be if we voluntarily gave up certain personal info."
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The Privacy Illusion

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  • by mrbluze ( 1034940 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @04:19AM (#41904915) Journal
    is freedom and to be let alone, to live without fear. That is what is scary about a government that knows (or can if it wants to) every detail down to what color rash you had when you were in college. But Scott Adams is right, nobody has such a right, but it's something that is worth fighting for nonetheless.
  • by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @04:21AM (#41904933)

    At the heart of the Constitution is the notion that the powers are government are derived from the people. That is to say, the government can only do what the people consent to allowing it to do. The document makes various references to this principle, some direct, others inferred. The Declaration of Independence was quite a bit more blunt on the topic. That said, the truth is... we're not all equal. Some people have more influence than others. Others have more money. And while we are afforded the right to vote, it's almost always voting who will represent us. We have no significant control over our government; Which was deliberate. The same people who said powers not expressly enumerated in the Constitution are reserved for the people also wrote in the so-called elasticity clause and created the electoral college.

    So when people say there's no right to privacy in the Constitution, they're right and they're wrong... as is the other camp. The truth is, human rights are not derived from any legal instrument. They have always flowed from the same source -- a willingness to fight against their removal.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @04:57AM (#41905129)

    While somewhat off-topic it puzzles me why these questions about privacy deal mainly with the government abuse of power (in the US at least). Living in a "socialist" country in the Northern Europe I can honestly say that I feel the government is protecting my privacy against companies and other private entities that might try to abuse this information about me rather than it being the big threat. While certainly not perfect or run by perfect people at least in theory the government represents the people for the people and is regulated by the people themselves while the private entities serve only the interests of a few and are in fact required to try to "maximize the profits for their owners" and thus to abuse their power to the full extent they can within the law (or slightly outside, which they can try to influence).

    I am aware of the differences in the history, the fact that government used to be about the only entity with enough resources (but would claim this is not even close to being the case now) nor am I saying the government should be given free hands to do whatever.

    But there seems to be such a difference in the standard mindset I would be interested in hearing some explanation for this.

  • by TwineLogic ( 1679802 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @05:02AM (#41905159)
    Scott Adams compares our loss of privacy to the domestication of dogs. That is unsupportable nonsense.

    According to Wikipedia, the current lineage of domesticated dogs diverged approximately 15,000 years ago. Our current American situation of lost privacy depends greatly on the electronic digital computer, which is around 75 years old. Therefore, Scott Adams was exaggerating by a factor of 200, and - more relevant - a difference of 14,925 years.

    The pervasive surveillance society, including facial recognition and the networking of ubiquitous video cameras, is being implemented at present. Today is much more recent than 15,000 years ago -- 15,000 years more recent, in fact.

    By suggesting that a national debate on our right to privacy is somehow not timely, and implying that we should instead accept that we have never had privacy, Scott Adams has deeply disappointed me. I really thought he was more intelligent than this, because his cartoon routinely makes fun of certain types of people for their stupidity. I figured that meant he was smart.

    The appropriate time to have a national conversation about our rights to privacy and to be "secure in our persons" is now. Today.
  • by AvderTheTerrible ( 1960234 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @05:04AM (#41905173)
    What I hate about these articles that say there is no right to privacy in the Constitution is that they completely forget about the existence of the Ninth Amendment:

    The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

    What that amendment means is that "just because we did not list that right here, does not mean it does not exist as a right. There are many rights we did not list here, and this amendment is intended to protect them as well as those we did list already". And yes, it is very broad. It is supposed to be broad because it is supposed to be a check on government power and a protection of the publics general rights. The Tenth Amendment is written along a similar line. Both are intended to say "any power or right we did not explicitly give to the federal government, we give to the people and the states". They are supposed to be very very broad because they are supposed to have a very broad interpretation in order to protect personal freedom and the autonomy of the states. And I think a right to privacy easily passes the test for inclusion under the Ninth Amendment.

    I disagree with anyone who says that the Constitution contains no right to privacy. It contains one, by virtue of the Ninth Amendment, by not explicitly denying it.
  • by Vintermann ( 400722 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @05:06AM (#41905195) Homepage

    Scott Adams is trolling. Not for the first time.

    Something he doesn't seem to worry about is that government (or large organizations) have a lot more power than ever to process information "they don't care about", to get information that they do. And use it.

    For instance, by itself, it's very uninteresting for government to know that I read Dilbert. But if it knows of my Dilbert reading habits, it can correlate that information with other things about me. Maybe they can even draw causal inferences, like that people tend to change their political attitudes ever so slightly after reading Dilbert for years. With enough data and processing power, that's feasible.

    The government can then decide to do something about Scott Adams. Not murder him, that's overkill. But maybe give him some personal problems, so that he becomes less influential. Or manipulating his attitudes, so that his role as an opinion-shaper becomes more to their liking. Again, with enough data and processing power, they can probably figure out an effective, non-violent way of changing Adams' behavior.

    This wouldn't be cost-effective, you may say. I say it might well be. Influencing a lot of people ever so slightly is really a very powerful thing to be able to. Most governments though history would have leaped at the opportunity to have this level of control, in a non-intrusive manner - compared to the clumsy heavyhandedness of harassment and ruling through fear, it's both less risky and potentially more profitable (given enough data and processing power).

    I think it's not feasible to keep processing power and data out of the government/big organizations' hands. Data is just too flightly - if it doesn't actually want to be free, at least it's very hard to contain. But we can get this flightly quality of information to work for us, rather than against us, by demanding radical transparency, and taking it if we don't get it (see Wikileaks).

  • by profplump ( 309017 ) <> on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @05:17AM (#41905241)

    The electoral college was created primarily because there's no requirement that states allow their citizens to vote for president. And in fact that was the common case in the early union -- electoral college delegates were often chosen by state legislatures. It wasn't an attempt to redirect power away from the electorate, it was an attempt to redirect power away from the federal government, insofar as states were all free to make their own choices about how to select a president.

  • by TheGratefulNet ( 143330 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @05:22AM (#41905273)

    is freedom and to be let alone, to live without fear

    I'm sorry, but you're only half right.

    half this country wants to dictate to the other half how to live.

    no, you are wrong; 'people' mostly want to control each other. its only the rare person that has a live-and-let-live attitude.

    I wish you were right, though.

  • by Luckyo ( 1726890 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @05:23AM (#41905279)

    Frankly, at least government can be held accountable in democracy.

    Good luck with the corporations though. And unlike governments, corporations don't have to take care of people either.

  • As a foreigner... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Stolpskott ( 2422670 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @06:07AM (#41905473)

    ...who has never read the US Constitution (something I have in common with probably 99% of US citizens), and whose primary knowledge of the Consitutional amendments extends only to the 18th and 21st Amendments, and the 5th amendment because I used to watch so many US lawyer shows (Perry Mason, LA Law, Ally I cannot comment on what, if any, privacy protections are given to the public in those documents - I suspect nothing explicit is included (, and further I suspect that any implied protections are based on individual interpretation of the wording.

    From my perspective, the biggest issue is not that Law Enforcement agencies can conduct surveillance and gather information on citizens, but that that the checks and balances to allow investigation while preventing authoritarian abuses (i.e. the need to apply for a Judicial warrant before engaging in said surveillance beyond certain well-defined boundaries) have been eroded to the point where there seems to be no judicial oversight and no ability for the public to scrutinise the process after the fact.

  • by neyla ( 2455118 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @06:15AM (#41905497)

    It's not that simple in practice. Wealthy and poor people tend to break -different- laws, and it's thus hard to say if the law proscribes the same punishment for equally serious transgressions.

    What's worse, stealing a car, or manipulating financial records to benefit your own wallet while befrauding investors to the tune of $1 million ? Who's more likely to do actual jail-time ?

  • by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @06:28AM (#41905553) Homepage

    Please try to pay more attention ... the corporations are the government.

  • by wdef ( 1050680 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @06:49AM (#41905663)

    What they really need is the ability to vote on individual issues.

    That could create more problems than it solves. Unfortunately, your average citizen just doesn't have the skills to evaluate the pros and cons of every single issue. That is the sad failing of democracy. Joe Citizen seems to use a limited set of retarded tools to make voting decisions, such as what the media or institutions (eg churches) tell him. You only have to look at quagmired, emotive but sensible issues like banning the death penalty, drug decriminalization, gun control, and criminal justice/penal system reform. The right way to go on those issues has been validated by countless studies - even proven in implementation in other countries - but rational thought is simply ignored in the popularity contest and the old "against" arguments marketed as truth.

  • by Tastecicles ( 1153671 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @07:07AM (#41905749)

    there is no express Right to Privacy in the US Constitution. Period.


    Ninth Amendment states:

    The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

    Tenth Amendment states:

    The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

    Government is strictly limited to doing those activities which are specifically authorized to it by the Constitution.

    Everything else is left to “the States, respectively, or to the People.“

    Constitutionally, the specific right to privacy does not exist. It is a privilege granted by local Statute. Data Protection Act, wiretapping restrictions, US Postal Service regulations and limitations, the Copyright Act and the Federal Reserve Act are but a few examples of Statutes that bestow privilege on certain types and methods of information, but for that information only - nothing in there even about personal privacy.

    All that said, there is an ancient Anglo-Saxon saying from the time of King Alfred (9th c.), which goes "A man's home is his castle". This is in fact part of the Code of Alfred and about the closest you'll get to an actual Constitutional statement about the absolute right to privacy. Back then, if you even turned up outside the walls of a fort uninvited or unannounced and flying the pennant of an alien House, you stood to be run through, and deservedly so. In England these days we have as closest analogue, section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986 which provides for intentional alarm, harassment or distress but still no specific *right* to privacy. People have tried to apply section 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 in civil Law but this Act only applies against Public Authorities, which are immunised from prosecution (civil or criminal) under HRA by section 71 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 which provides complete immunity if said corporate body turns evidence in *any other proceeding*.

  • by martas ( 1439879 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @07:23AM (#41905817)
    I think often there is very good reason to be more afraid of a powerful government than a powerful corporation. The government is the one with the power to put you in jail, kill you, take away everything you own, etc. Also government is often driven not by predictable profit-seeking motives, but more "irrational" fanaticism. True, in some cases corporations can also take things from you, but usually they have the power to do so through, or because of, the government (the cops are the ones who force you out of your foreclosed house, not bankers). Of course there's a flipside also -- too weak a government can't protect you from private entities directly fucking with you.
  • by rumith ( 983060 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @08:23AM (#41906065)

    Human rights are not derived from any legal instrument. They have always flowed from the same source -- a willingness to fight against their removal.

    A most precise and excellently worded observation. My hat off to you.

  • by Tokolosh ( 1256448 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @09:03AM (#41906387)

    "Tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. The robber baron’s cruelty (and) cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience." -- CS Lewis

  • by dpilot ( 134227 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @09:38AM (#41906673) Homepage Journal

    Now we're into the right realm...

    I don't try to dictate how others live, and I with for the same from them - that they don't dictate how I live.

    OTOH, some regulation is necessary, because we all live on this planet together. Your right to pollute air and water indiscriminately stops at my nose, mouth, and generally the rest of my body. Kind of like your right to swing your fist stops at my face.

    I also believe that society has a general responsibility to protect children - the future of that society. But what you want to do with another consenting adult is none of my business. I don't particularly like the idea of gay marriage - so I'm not going to do it. But I also believe that that's your business.

    As for "voluntarily give up certain personal info," the key word in that phrase is "voluntarily." As long as *I* get to choose to give up - or retain - that information, I'm find with that. If giving up some information improves my life, I may choose to do so. I'm a bit of a privacy bug, but I also recognize that I'm one of those "boring people," and if anything, my "privacy hobby" raises my profile some.

  • by sourcerror ( 1718066 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @10:25AM (#41907093)

    They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

    Said the slave owner.

  • by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @10:56AM (#41907489)
    I'd also point out that we have the rights we say we have. It's not like the right to life, liberty, and property/pursuit of hapiness is handed down by nature. Nature would allow trillions of things to deprive you of life, doesn't give a fuck about your liberty, has no concept of property, and has designed your brain to make hapiness fleeting.

    Rights as they are defined in the constitution were people agreeing that those rights were a good idea. I think most people would agree that we have a right to privacy today. They would have agreed to it back when the constitution was being drafted were it a question. But it probably wouldn't occur to them that 200 years later, it would be so easy to see nearly everything that everyone does.

    I wonder what rights we enjoy as a default today that will come into question due to technology in the next 200 years. Rights not to have your consciousness electronically amalgamated into a collective mind? Maybe we should put an amendment to that effect into place now. The Borg were pretty creepy.
  • by kilfarsnar ( 561956 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @11:33AM (#41907993)

    Nice quote.

    They want the shelter, food and safety.

    Yes, but then what? I think Maslow's hierarchy of needs comes into play here. At base people need food, shelter and relative safety. But once those things are secured, people start looking to things like self-esteem and self-actualization. That's where the freedom comes into play.

    No one likes the feeling of being watched or judged. But constant surveillance and evaluation of actions is the dystopian conclusion of a world without privacy. But as Mr. Adams points out, we have already lost our privacy. So what we really want and need is restraint and accountability. Mr. Adams talks about all the great things we could have and do if we gave up our privacy. But he predicates all that on having an incorruptible guardian of our information; nuns in his case. But that's the problem; we don't have incorruptible nuns. The reason we are so protective of our privacy is that we don't trust the government to not abuse the power and information it is given. It comes down to trust. That's why we actually need restraint and accountability, not the privacy we have already lost.

    Unfortunately, with the rise of the national security state, especially after 9/11/01, the citizenry is treated more as potential criminals than responsible citizens. The safeguards of accountability and restraint are being stripped away in the forms of warrant-less surveillance, TSA checkpoints far from the border, and Presidential kill lists. So people trust the government less and less as the government trusts the people less and less. People naturally become wary and afraid of the government, as they would any entity that was much more powerful than them and not trustworthy. I think that's what people are really expressing when they talk about privacy and Big Brother.

  • by Americano ( 920576 ) on Wednesday November 07, 2012 @01:01PM (#41909077)

    The problem is, enforcing the laws on the books is its fucking business.

    Adams has a good point - there's 2 categories the government lumps your information into: stuff it doesn't care about, and stuff that it can find out if it has a reason. If it has a legitimate subpoena, it can get almost any information it wants to about you, and legal "fishing expeditions" are not that hard to mount.

    So why not decriminalize all the stupid "victimless / harmless" crimes, get them off the books, and let the police agencies ACTUALLY go after the real criminals? They'll always going to have the power to subpoena your information if they have reasonable suspicion that you've committed a crime, no matter how much you stomp your feet and shout about privacy. Furthermore, it's not ALL that hard for the government to manufacture "reasonable suspicion" if they're really looking for a reason to nail you.

    So instead of worrying about "privacy" (which is at the mercy of the government's lack of interest in you to begin with), limit the circumstances that would give them an excuse to start pawing through your personal information in the first place. They will always be able to violate your privacy - so limit the circumstances where they legitimately have that power.

Someday your prints will come. -- Kodak