September 17, 2013

Surveillance and privacy intrusion — further notes

I’ve posted a lot about surveillance and privacy intrusion. Even so, I have a few more things to say.

1. Surveillance and privacy intrusion do, of course, have real benefits. That’s a big part of why I advocate a nuanced approach to privacy regulation. Several of those benefits are mentioned below.

2. Nobody’s opinion about privacy rules should be based on the exact state of surveillance today, for at least two reasons:

In particular, people may not realize how comprehensive surveillance will get, due largely to the “internet of things”. The most profound reason — and this will take decades to fully play out — is that we’re headed toward a medical revolution in which our vital signs are more or less continually monitored as they go about their business. Such monitoring will, of course, provide a very detailed record of people’s activities and perhaps even states of mind. Further, vehicle movements will all be tracked and our mobile devices will keep noting our location, in each case for multiple reasons.

3. I agree with the argument that better profiling would lead to less annoying mass screening — even though I also agree that much of what passes for important screening is really just wasteful security theater.

4. Indeed, there are one or two areas in which privacy protections actually go too far. The definite one is research. Medical research could benefit greatly from cross-patient analyses of medical records that are sadly prohibited due to patient information privacy rules. I conjecture that similar concerns may arise in other research domains as well.

The less definite one is general bureaucratic hassle. People are kept away from the hospital bedsides of their loved ones for fear they’ll overhear something affecting another patient’s privacy. And any officious bureaucrat who wants to stonewall an information request can usually find a privacy excuse for doing so.

5. The Eleventh Commandment states: Thou shalt not get caught. I believe that that principle, historically, has been one of the greatest protections against illegal surveillance and its consequences. There isn’t really that much the government can do to the people it snoops on before its misdeeds get too big to ignore — although 10s of 1000s of innocent people on the No-Fly list might take a less sunny view.

Unfortunately, we can’t just assume that “free” countries will stay safely free. My late mother lost her grandparents to the Nazis and a career to McCarthyism. “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about” is a very bad argument going forward, even if it’s substantiated by evidence in the recent past.

6. And finally: Some years ago, I was almost alone within the industry in raising privacy-related issues. But things sure have changed. TechCrunch — propelled by Mike Arrington — offers a good survey of the current level of concern.

It’s probably not coincidental that Arrington has a background in law or that I have one in public policy. But the time has come for everybody in the technology industry to worry about privacy, not just those of us who are oriented toward legal issues. It’s a huge mess; we helped make it; we are now responsible for helping to clean it up.

Comments

One Response to “Surveillance and privacy intrusion — further notes”

  1. mike on September 17th, 2013 8:48 pm

    With every form of surveillance, imagine it in the hands of the worst form of government you can imagine, because eventually that will happen. What could Hitler, Mao or Stalin have done with this info? How much more effective could they have been? Because you may like today’s leadership, but you may detest tomorrow’s leadership. The pendulum swings, imagine the extremes.

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