July 29, 2013

Very chilling effects

I’ve worried for years about a terrible and under-appreciated danger of privacy intrusion, which in a recent post I characterized as a chilling effect upon the exercise of ordinary freedoms. When government — or an organization such as your employer, your insurer, etc. — watches you closely, it can be dangerous to deviate from the norm. Even the slightest non-conformity could have serious consequences. I wish that were an exaggeration; let’s explore why it isn’t.

Possible difficulties — most of them a little bit futuristic — include:

And it goes on. My late mother’s favorite aunt, Genja Jonas, was a prominent photographer; indeed, the collection of her photographs I inherited is probably rather valuable. One of her specialties was photographing children. In Germany, in her day, children often ran around in the nude. Just looking into her work too closely could reasonably be regarded as a signal of pedophiliac intent.

What makes these dangers so great is the confluence of two sets of factors:


This road leads to gray, totalitarian-like conformity. Fortunately, there’s still also a path to a brighter future.

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11 Responses to “Very chilling effects”

  1. What our legislators should do about privacy (and aren’t) | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on July 29th, 2013 12:39 am

    […] been harping on the grave dangers of surveillance and privacy intrusion. Clearly, something must be done to rein them in. But […]

  2. Marco Ullasci on July 30th, 2013 2:47 am

    Hi Curt,
    this is a subject I’me very interested in and worried about, so I’ll take the risk to comment and appear to be a political dissenter:
    while ever-smaller deviations from the norm are becoming detectable.
    deviations (will) include the decision of keeping away from some of the monitoring channels (always-on smartphones today, Google-glass-like devices in a few years, GPS tracking of the car and so on) that are common for an individual’s population segment: even deciding to limit the quantity of our personal traces in the digital world is providing a trace about us.

    This road leads to gray, totalitarian-like conformity
    Most people doesn’t realize how strong the push to conformity is but social scientists have provided demonstrations of this for a long time now.
    The video below is great to show the phenomenon live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sno1TpCLj6A the subject tested behaves as if he had stopped to believe to his own eyes.

    there’s still also a path to a brighter future
    I agree: we can still discuss the subject freely so it’s still possible to change how the situation will evolve.
    And even in the worst case the history shows that even in totalitarian states it was possible to be a political dissenter and share ideas.
    Maybe not as easily and (almost) risk free as it’s today in the western countries, but possible.

  3. Curt Monash on video | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on August 8th, 2013 7:52 pm

    […] capped off a series on privacy and surveillance a few days […]

  4. Why privacy laws should be based on data use, not data possession | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on August 19th, 2013 8:58 am

    […] of the problem is the very chilling effects they can have upon the exercise of day-to-day freedoms. Fortunately, I’m not as alone in […]

  5. The Hemisphere program | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on September 3rd, 2013 4:04 am

    […] to a point, this is reassuring. But it still bodes badly for a future in which there are many more ways surveillance can be used to hurt us than were possible before. Categories: Data warehousing, GIS and geospatial, Liberty and privacy, […]

  6. The report of Obama’s Snowden-response commission | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on January 27th, 2014 3:14 pm

    […] am always pleased when policy makers recognize that the key issue is chilling effects upon the exercise of ordinary freedoms; the report made that point multiple times, footnoting both Sonia Sotomayor and the 1970s Church […]

  7. Misconceptions about privacy and surveillance | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on September 15th, 2014 1:08 pm

    […] crucial point about chilling effects was laid out in two July, 2013 posts, and some public policy recommendations around the […]

  8. “Chilling effects” revisited | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on June 18th, 2015 5:51 am

    […] The reason, in simplest terms, is that your interests could be held against you. For example, models can estimate your future health, your propensity for risky hobbies, or your likelihood of changing your residence, career, or spouse. Any of these insights could be useful to employers or financial services firms, and not in a way that redounds to your benefit. And if you think enterprises (or governments) would never go that far, please consider an argument from the sequel to my first “chilling effects” post: […]

  9. Notes on privacy and surveillance, October 11, 2015 | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on October 13th, 2015 3:17 am

    […] Very chilling effects, in which I point out how damaging surveillance can be when there’s even a possibility of adverse consequence. […]

  10. Privacy and surveillance require our attention | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on May 18th, 2016 11:41 pm

    […] As always, I think that the eventual success or failure of surveillance regulation will depend greatly on the extent to which it accounts for chilling effects. The gravity of surveillance’s longer-term dangers is hard to overstate, yet  they still seem broadly overlooked. So please allow me to reiterate what I wrote in 2013 — surveillance + analytics can lead to very chilling effects. […]

  11. Monitoring | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on March 26th, 2017 7:17 am

    […] The dark side of monitoring is surveillance of citizens and the resulting chilling effects. […]

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