April 4, 2010

Liberty and privacy, once again

I’ve long argued three points:

*And indeed in many ways even desirable

I surprised people by leading with the liberty/privacy subject at my New England Database Summit keynote; considerable discussion ensued, largely supportive. I hope for a similar outcome when I keynote the Aster Big Data Summit in Washington, DC in May. And I expect to do even more to advance the liberty/privacy discussion as 2010 unfolds.

Fortunately, I’m not the only only thinking or talking about these liberty/privacy issues. A group of Very Big Companies (Google, eBay, Microsoft, AOL, AT&T, Intel, et al.) have backed something called Digital Due Process, to restore the Fourth Amendment’s teeth in the electronic age. (The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution is the one that restricts and governs law enforcement activities in the areas of “search and seizure”.) That fits quite nicely with the privacy/liberty point I’m most emphasizing, to wit:

I think that regulating use actually suffices. Look again at the Bill of Rights. On a first reading, it seems that the Fourth and Fifth Amendments prevent the government from getting certain kinds of information. It can’t look inside our houses, and it can’t make us answer questions … wrong! Actually, the courts can compel you to testify on any subject they choose; if you refuse to answer, you can go to jail for contempt of court. But they can only compel you if you are given immunity, so that you can’t be convicted of the crimes the testimony reveals. I.e., the government can get the information it wants; it just can’t use that information to harm you. (Fourth Amendment rights are a little murkier; if the government finagles its way into your house for any reasons, there are still actively litigated questions as to what kinds of information it can use that it may find there.)

A week ago, Michael Arrington posted the social side of the same coin, saying It’s Time To Overlook Our Indiscretions, by which he seemed to mean: In a world where all kinds of embarrassing information will come out, we should not (always) penalize people for the existence of mildly embarrassing information about them. I am in vigorous agreement with that.

Progress is being made. But we’re just at the beginning of what will be a long, difficult, and hugely important process. The stakes, without exaggeration, are human freedom, on a national and indeed global scale.

Edit: Scott Yara of Greenplum says it simply (emphasis mine):

We need laws to keep sensitive stuff such as credit records and medical histories from getting into the wrong hands. But even with such laws, it’s inevitable that information will leak out. So we also need rules about how personal information that might come into the hands of employers, police, lenders, and others can be used.

Related links


15 Responses to “Liberty and privacy, once again”

  1. Don McIntosh on April 4th, 2010 6:01 am

    Curt, it’s good to see that you mention MS Research and the work they are doing (and they’re certainly not alone in that). I see statistical disclosure control used a lot in statistical offices, as well as some areas of health but it does seem like something that could be used a lot more broadly, either to make more data available and/or make data that is regularly released more protective of privacy.

  2. Data-based snooping — a huge threat to liberty that we’re all helping make worse | DBMS2 -- DataBase Management System Services on April 6th, 2010 3:55 pm

    […] Liberty and privacy, yet again […]

  3. Information found in public-facing social networks | DBMS2 -- DataBase Management System Services on April 8th, 2010 10:52 am

    […] Easily-available information reveals all sorts of things about us. […]

  4. Examples of machine-generated data | DBMS2 -- DataBase Management System Services on April 8th, 2010 3:21 pm

    […] data. The data volumes involved could be similar to or even greater than those of CDRs. But privacy concerns with that are obviously immense. (Of course, in the case of Foursquare, this sort of […]

  5. Big Brother watching our parents? | DBMS2 -- DataBase Management System Services on April 20th, 2010 12:32 am

    […] easy to abuse. That’s just one more reason we really, really need to get our collective liberty and privacy act […]

  6. Neil Raden on June 23rd, 2010 4:14 pm


    As we discussed today, I am 100% behind this effort and I’m ready to assist in any way I can.


  7. My talk this morning | DBMS2 -- DataBase Management System Services on June 28th, 2010 3:05 pm

    […] doing all year, I plan to start the talk with the subject of liberty and privacy. My most recent overview post on privacy and liberty has a bunch of links to what I and other people have said […]

  8. The essential questions of Fair Data Use | DBMS2 -- DataBase Management System Services on July 4th, 2010 7:31 pm

    […] is Independence Day in the United States, which seems like a great time to return to the subject of liberty, privacy, and fair data use. I continue to […]

  9. Reconciling medical privacy and elder care | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on September 13th, 2010 1:49 am

    […] Restricting information flow is not the best way to go about protecting privacy […]

  10. Notes and links October 22, 2010 | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on October 22nd, 2010 2:47 am

    […] Obviously, my answer to the second question is Yes!!!! […]

  11. Notes and cautions about new analytic technology | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on April 8th, 2011 12:01 am

    […] Liberty and privacy. That’s a link to my most recent overview post on the liberty and privacy implications of modern analytic technology. The notes I spoke from were actually posted previously, after I spoke from them at the New England Database Summit at MIT in January. I’m gratified that, at both events, I got very positive feedback on liberty and privacy issues. […]

  12. Where the privacy discussion needs to head : DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on March 1st, 2012 7:02 am

    […] That’s a drum I’ve been beating for years, so to a first approximation I’m pleased. However: […]

  13. Mike on April 19th, 2013 6:47 pm

    But do governments follow restrictions/laws on use of information. During the Malvo shootings the government went to the homes of over 100 people who owned .223 rifles and confiscated them for ballistics testing. There is no legal way for them to know who had these weapons. The law requires that the background check data be destroyed. So, (whether you agree with this example or not) how can we trust the government to follow the law themselves?

  14. Curt Monash on April 19th, 2013 7:11 pm


    That’s actually a good example of my point. Governments do have information, or else can easily get it, legally or otherwise. I’d even say “don’t fight that” except that the fights are useful as a delaying and shaming tactic.

    Better would have been if the government had the information, then needed to get a special law passed to check this one time, which of course would have passed easily.

    Now, if you want to make a case that the Second Amendment is about the right to engage in armed resistance against the whole government, using the Lexington/Concord battles as your template — well, that’s a different matter. But otherwise there’s no real reason for the government not to have such information, as long as it can only be used for a certain seriousness of criminal investigation.

  15. Where things stand in US government surveillance | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on June 10th, 2013 12:13 pm

    […] And my views can be summarized much as I did three years ago: […]

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