Technology, Privacy and Freedom

Not long ago, the Beloved and I took a three-day trip to visit our older son and daughter-in-law in New Orleans. We flew from LaGuardia.

As we have long been accustomed to doing when leaving for short trips, we drove to the airport rather than use a taxi or car service. Big mistake: we had forgotten that the enormous old parking garage near the main terminal has been temporarily torn down as part of rebuilding the airport.

We were directed to park in a remote area that I had never seen before. As we awaited the bus that would take us through the construction mess and back to the terminal, I noticed a sign announcing that cash would not be accepted for payment on retrieving our car.

I wondered out loud to the Beloved if it was illegal for the Port Authority to refuse to accept cash: it says right on the bills we carry that they are “legal tender for all debts, public and private.” Now nervous that we might miss our flight, she was less than captivated by my question.

***

The trend away from the use of cash is clear. Credit cards and online payment systems offer consumers better convenience for any but the smallest transactions, and governments much prefer the tracking capabilities provided by the newer payment mechanisms.

Larry Summers and other government and academic mandarins have proposed getting rid of denominations of $100 or more on the theory that they are mostly used by criminals. India took that ball and ran with it: they have banned 500 and 1,000 rupee notes (these sound like large denominations, but 500 rupees is only about $7.50)  http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-11-08/india-abolishes-inr500-1-000-rupee-notes-to-fight-corruption. Perhaps most astonishingly, Citibank’s Australian branches have announced that they will no longer accept or distribute cash in any amounts.

I’m all for consumer convenience, of course – and for catching criminals – but one doesn’t have to be paranoid to worry about the loss of privacy inherent in the slow death of cash as an accepted medium of exchange. Cash gives me the opportunity to bargain with you without both of us assuming that the government or large corporations (or anybody who buys data from them) has the right to know about our exchange. Without cash, every aspect of our economic lives can become public, right down to the food we eat.

***

It’s not hard to see where the loss of our privacy can lead. In today’s Wall Street Journal there’s an article (http://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-new-tool-for-social-control-a-credit-rating-for-everything-1480351590) that describes how the Chinese government intends to use data to control its citizens’ behavior. They are compiling databases on each individual’s spending, credit history, online searches/profiles, etc. with the intention of using them to decide who should get job opportunities, loans or, on the downside, extra surveillance. Mindful of such omnipresent snooping, no doubt most people will make sure that their behavior conforms to Party-approved norms.

Don’t for a moment imagine that such experiments in behavior control can’t, or won’t, happen here. They are already happening.

For one thing, companies track and profile us all the time – that’s one of the central functions of the data-driven digital economy. It’s not hard to see such profiling as beneficial – they’ll only try to sell us what they’ve figured out we probably want to buy. In a sense, such consumer profiling is no different from the time-honored “know your customer” business paradigm.

It becomes more concerning, though, when governments track and profile us; they are incentivized not to offer us products or services that we might willingly pay for, but rather to coercively channel our behaviors in ways that suit their purposes. If I know that the IRS – or some other agency – is run by progressives, will I be more careful about reading or posting on libertarian-oriented blogs like Civil Horizon? Maybe.

Does that sound far-fetched to you? As previously mentioned, a Federal judge has found that the IRS discriminated against conservative organizations in the runup to the 2012 election (http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2016/11/the-irs-day-1291judgestrong-showing-that-irs-discriminated-against-tea-party-groups.html). And the Democratic members of the Federal Election Committee are on record as having advocated shutting down the Drudge Report as uncontrolled political speech – so they are clearly paying attention to what people read, with a view to controlling it. In England, a bill was just passed that forces telecomm providers to provide the government, on request, with a one-year history of the websites any individual has visited (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/29/snoopers-charter-bill-becomes-law-extending-uk-state-surveillance).

I would be very surprised if the US government can’t already access all the same information about us – look at our online profiles/search histories, spending habits, even read our emails – but I would like to think, in the case of emails and credit card payments, not without a warrant. The government’s constant incentive – even if based on motives that are wholly pure (meaning: to protect the public from criminal behavior or terrorism) – is to open up access to such data to ever-larger groups of prying eyes, thereby inevitably increasing the likelihood that such information will be abused for politically partisan or coercive ends.

***

We live in a world increasingly defined by data. In many respects, this is a good thing. The digital revolution is making nearly every facet of human life – and the economy – vastly more efficient.

At the same time, though, our zones of personal privacy are disappearing quickly. I fear that many of our freedoms – most particularly the ability to dissent from the political ideology or lifestyle choices of whichever group is dominant at the moment – will be sharply limited by the consequences of our losses of privacy. I fear a comfortable and conformist future – that we will find ourselves living in The Matrix, but without that movie’s alien masters.

***

New Orleans was lovely. While there, we learned to our great joy that our daughter-in-law is pregnant.

Will that child grow up in a better world than I grew up in, or than exists today?

In many respects, yes. Life expectancies and human comforts have improved dramatically and can be expected to continue to do so as science and the efficiency of our economies continue to improve by leaps and bounds. Information is everywhere now, and it is cheaply stored and shared.

We just have to make sure that we control it, rather than the other way around.

 

M.H. Johnston

3 comments to Technology, Privacy and Freedom

  • Ken  says:

    Does that sound far-fetched to you? …..Nope. Posting on a site is equally track able to clicking on it. And what once was termed “news and journalism” is now called click bait. It’s all advertising.

  • Anonymous  says:

    Fascinating as ever.

  • Bill  says:

    I was one of the two thirds of the Civil Horizon readers who did not receive this post the first time you sent it out. Thanks for the second posting, with your usual interesting and well written observations. Based on the ads that appear on the sidebar of my computer screen, I am amazed how much Google knows about my life, preferences, and intentions. And the apps on my iPhone know where I am, 24 hours per day. We have already given up a lot of privacy.

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