A Right to Privacy?

In writing these posts, I generally try to present myself as being both surer of my opinions and more eloquent than I actually am. I figure that expressing my thoughts boldly and as elegantly as I can makes them more worthy of your time than they would be if I simply tossed off random ideas. I will only keep half of that implicit bargain in this post, though, because while I’ll try to write it clearly, I’ll be more open about my own uncertainty as to what the right policy or personal responses should be to the dilemmas I’ll describe.

This https://www.the-american-interest.com/2019/05/06/the-new-face-of-tyranny/ article by historian Paul Rahe raises, and gives historical context to, a set of issues that I have been thinking about for some time: how the intersection of modern technology and the administrative state are driving the loss of both personal privacy and – ultimately – our liberties.

After giving a brief tour through history – with an emphasis on the changing norms and practical capabilities of despots through the ages, and after also describing the much rarer societies that have been based on individual empowerment, Rahe focuses on the present use of technology by the Chinese government to constantly monitor millions of Uighurs (imprisoning more than a million of them) – and its plans to eventually monitor all of its citizens with the intent of crushing dissent. He ends by describing our own (thus far, largely voluntary) giving up of our privacy to technology companies that monetize their knowledge about everything we do and increasingly control the information we see. The inescapable takeaway is that despotism is easier to establish and maintain in a society in which modern technology is both omnipresent and, effectively, the central nervous system for sharing information.

Which is, of course, where we are today. Big Brother is alive and well and in this country he has taken the form of companies that provide us with useful services that we are encouraged to think of as free.

Most of us prefer not to think about the loss of personal privacy that flows from our uses of technology, but at some subliminal level we know that the tech giants track our movements, follow our social media posts and even scan our emails – but the latter only for use, or so we are told, in compiling so-called anonymized metadata. What exactly that qualifier means, I am confident, few of us really know. What is clear enough is that the ads we see online are narrowly tailored to our particular needs, interests and circumstances. My computer, so it seems, really knows who I am.

On occasion I have even had had the eerie experience of having a conversation, not even a correspondence, about some upcoming decision – possibly selling a home, for example – only to shortly thereafter start seeing ads for nearby real estate brokers who would be interested in telling me its value. Are the tech firms listening to our conversations? Apparently, they have the capability to turn on a listening function in our devices without our being aware that they have done so. Are they watching us in our homes and offices? Maybe.

How are such invasions of privacy – everything from scanning our emails to maybe actually spying on us – legal?

In a narrow sense, because we have agreed to them. Every time we install a seemingly innocuous app on our devices – the Weather Channel, say – we check the little box that states that we have read and agree to the site’s terms and conditions – otherwise we can’t install the app, and won’t be able to automatically check the weather forecast wherever we are without tediously entering location data.

But here’s the thing: most of us are lying when we check those boxes. We haven’t actually read the endless legal jargon in the terms and conditions, and we don’t really know what we have agreed to. I am quite sure that the tech companies know that; one could argue that they depend on our laziness and the fact that we know that we have zero bargaining power. So there are few practical limitations as to what they can do with information that we generally, and incorrectly under the circumstances, assume is ours to share or not.

Many people have decided that they shouldn’t worry about being tracked and identified on the view that ‘I haven’t done anything wrong, and don’t expect to, so who cares what data about me is sold to marketers?’ But our loss of personal privacy doesn’t only mean that people exclusively try to sell us things that fit our needs, or that embarrassing images or information about our personal habits might show up in public unexpectedly – it means we begin to watch what we do and say, even in circumstances or communications that we would previously have thought of as private. Unless you’re Donald Trump, a wholly public life is one constrained by convention.

***

Apple used to have a marketing campaign with the tagline ‘Think Different’. (I always thought it should have been “Think Differently’, but perhaps that would have sounded too much like the company was lecturing us rather than – supposedly – encouraging creativity). Even so, some different thoughts are actively discouraged by the dominant tech companies. Google, for example, won’t allow The Claremont Institute to advertise its 40th anniversary gala on the theory that Claremont’s anti-multiculturalist viewpoint that “the proposition that all human beings are created equal is the central, animating principle of American political life” is somehow racist (https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/googles-attack-on-the-claremont-institute-must-not-stand/). (Based on that decision, I’m pretty sure that Google wouldn’t allow me to advertise the Civil Horizon posts about race, either). Twitter seems to be engaged in a wholesale purge of conservative voices (https://pjmedia.com/trending/twitter-declares-war-on-conservatives-pro-trump-accounts-purged/); perhaps a more apt tagline for the big tech companies would have been ‘Think Progressive(ly)’.

In principal, I have no objection to a company making its own decisions about what kinds of voices it will magnify or what advertising it will accept, but I’m a little confused about whether we are supposed to think of Google, Facebook and Twitter as media companies responsible for their own content like CNN or The New York Times or whether they hold themselves out as common carriers, neutral about content like an old-fashioned telephone company. My impression is that they began as something like the latter but are becoming more like the former, albeit in disguised form. In any event, the fact that the same – media – companies both push a strongly progressive agenda and collect (and sell) huge amounts of personal data on all of us should surely give pause to those who think differently from those companies’ insistently left wing perspectives.

The absence of personal privacy encourages – and may even be used to enforce – conformity with the expectations of the ‘in’ crowd – a lesson that tyrannical governments have learned all too well. And our big tech companies are quite eager to work with governments to determine exactly which voices should be actively censored – witness Mark Zuckerberg’s recent calls for government guidance on that score. Or Google’s eagerness to help enable China’s monitoring of its populace. Freedom of speech as an exalted value? Not so much.

***

Ideas that might help give us back some of the privacy that our devices are taking away :

  1. The federal government should pass a law (bet you never expected to read those words at the beginning of a sentence on Civil Horizon) criminalizing the act of turning ‘on’ listening or video devices in private homes or offices in the absence of a specific request in each instance from the device’s owner. In other words: no spying on people based on probably-never-read terms and conditions.
  2. Tech companies should be barred from reading users’ emails or using metadata gleaned from them without specific authorization in each instance. In other words: email should be as presumptively private as snail mail.
  3. Every app and website should be required to disclose how it expects to use and monetize user data in plain English before the app is used or the site accessed.
  4. Search engines and social media platforms should be content-neutral except where plainly indicated, and
  5. Severe penalties should be levied against tech companies that do not respect the privacy parameters that have been agreed with their customers.

I recognize that these ideas are just a beginning and that some are far too vague to be taken as legitimate proposals. As indicated at the start of this post, I am not even confident that these ideas represent practical solutions to the concerns I’ve described.

I’m publishing the post anyway, though, on the view that if the Right to Privacy is to mean anything more than that laws against abortion are to be deemed unconstitutional, we’ll need to have a thorough airing of these issues, and effective constraints on the companies and governments that would otherwise be naturally inclined to obliterate what privacy we still have.

M.H. Johnston

One comment to A Right to Privacy?

  • Anonymous  says:

    sobering thoughts….thanks

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