Why Privacy?


How many of your colleagues at work know your home address, much less have been to your house? How about your friends at school or even your church?  How many people in your life do you invite into your home?  Think of using the Internet as inviting every website, data center, and telecom provider you traverse into your home.  You should realize that every time you get on the Internet, browse on the web, use a mobile app, or upload your data to the cloud you are sharing your most intimate thoughts and moments with nameless, faceless organizations, government agencies and potentially hackers and organized crime.  Your telecom provider assigns you a unique digital address associated directly with your home address and billing information.  Every networked resource records that information as a default setting in the software that runs the Internet.  Every website you visit, every app you open, every link you click is recorded and stamped with your unique home identifier.  That information has a natural inertia as part of an ever-expanding profile linked to you - paired individually and in aggregate - with credit reporting, zip codes, socio-economic demographics and a myriad of other data related to you and your neighbors.

A frequently heard presumptive that “those who have nothing to hide do not mind being monitored” is an affront to the spirit and values that founded this country.  All of our most fundamental freedoms require privacy if they are to be protected.  To this day in the United States it is considered taboo to simply ask someone, "So, what religion are you?” The reason is that we are historically a nation of immigrants seeking asylum from those who would control us or purge us of our most-cherished traditions.  The foundational tenet of American government is that it is impossible to persecute those one cannot identify - there has never been a pogrom of the anonymous.  The Founding Fathers created a system of government purposely at odds with itself in order to enshrine principles meant to elevate the individual.  Government by the people means that the people may change the laws and the representatives who make them to fit their evolving needs.  Part of that history is a rich tradition of anonymous public debate and discourse such as the Federalist Papers, which although not part of any official legal framework, influence our highest courts to this day. 

Never in history has the voice of the citizen been so empowered.  Every citizen has the power to communicate instantaneously with almost the entire world via the Internet.  However, in the greatest of ironies, only the public institutions are anonymous. They speak through a title like "Public Communications Officer" or simply a #handle in social media. No one knows where they live or who their neighbors are or how much they pay in taxes. The result is all that is heard is the message they deliver, as though it materialized of its own will.  In contrast, we now live in a world where every street corner is under surveillance, every action on the Internet - every email, cell call, or GPS query -  is scrutable, and every act of commerce is recorded as part of a permanent credit history. 

The power to identify and classify is the means to shame, differentiate, and discourage nascent voices of individuality before they can be heard.  Every celebrated movement of suffrage, emancipation, and equality in American history is the result of a few brave voices followed by the inertial masses of the unknown until mere inertia became a surge and finally a movement. The Social Experiment of the Internet has come full circle: when once every voice was equal and anonymous, now only powerful organizations are anonymous.  The clear lesson is that if you are to be heard, you must be anonymous.  Those who share unpopular or controversial views are identified, targeted, and often attacked (personally).  The result is that nuance is traded in favor of consistency; dialectic is to be strictly adhered to as there can only be two sides to an issue; participation in dialogue is reduced to adding your number to the tweeting ranks.  Most of us will refrain from sharing our thoughts for fear of ridicule, shame, or public excoriation.  An entire generation of philosophers and thinkers have warned us of this threat: read George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

Privacy in the Internet era is tantamount to anonymity.  Anonymity requires tools like encryption and access to those tools is a debate that crosses decades and administrations.  For the history of publicly available encryption, the government’s position has been they should hold keys for all encrypted devices - this took form in the “Clipper Chip” debate during the Clinton administration.  This perspective continues to be the position of government administration to this day.  It may seem a reasonable argument that law enforcement should be able to open “locked doors” when necessary but there are two big problems. The simplest is that “doors” are not a good analogy to the digital world and when an encryption key is broken, all “doors” are suddenly unlocked.  A key to open every door is a prize worthy of some of the greatest investments of time and energy and breaking those keys surely happens.  The other problem is assuming government will abide by the law. 

In fact, the temptation to ignore legal restraints has repeatedly proven to be too great for government agencies.  In 2003, Mark Klein, a whistleblower at AT&T, revealed the National Security Agency was monitoring U.S. Citizens wholesale - the government was ingesting every packet of data that flowed across the Internet.  As a response, the Electronic Frontier Foundation would bring a class action lawsuit against the government.  During this process, it would eventually come to light that the effort likely started in the 1990’s, long before any national emergency.  Eventually, an act of Congress would pardon telecommunications providers (and government agencies).  Then, in December of 2005 we would learn of yet another NSA program monitoring US Citizens wholesale.  This revelation was not the work of Edward Snowden, who the world would not meet for another 8 years, but the work of a career Law Enforcement professional, Thomas Tamm. As a result of these disclosures, the government would turn its attention to punishing the whistleblowers. To date, there is no legislative or administrative action that revokes any of these programs.

General Coverage in Popular Media from the Period (PDFs courtesy of Pikes Peak Library)

Modern Healthcare - PDF Link

Nation - PDF Link

National Journal - PDF Link

Newsweek - PDF Link

New York Times - PDF Link

PCWorld - PDF Link

Popular Science - PDF Link

Time - PDF Link

US News - PDF Link

USA Today - PDF Link