The right to privacy.

I Find Karma (
Thu, 21 Aug 1997 04:06:54 -0700 (PDT)

Ron said there'd be a quiz on all of these ethics questions we've been
discussing lately.

1. What are morals?
Um, those paintings on walls...

2. What are scruples?
Um, the Russian currency...

3. What is privacy?

Okay, I would do quite miserably on such a test. Rohit, can I just
steal your answers?

Since he's feeling quiet for some reason I cannot fathom -- hey Rohit,
is this some kine of test? -- I feel compelled to point out that Rohit
uses economic reasoning to resolve questions of morals. Just great,
you say, we put five economists in a room and get six opinions (seven if
one of them is from University of Chicago), so how does that help us?

Rohit believes in Pareto optimality when it comes to societal moral
stances. Diversity is the key. Accept all shades of grey. Because it
ultimately lifts the aggregate happiness of society (even though
individual happiness may be sacrificed for the greater good). The
beauty of diversity is that there are positive gains to differentiation.

This, says Kevin Kelly in his 1994 book "Out of Control," will be the
fundamental paradigm shift in computers in the next century: "swarms" of
computing beasties (more like collective hives than interacting agents)
whose diversity allow them to tackle a problem as a biomass. (Ron, this
is the book you should read, BTW.)

Speaking of Kelly, he has two appearances in the August 25, 1997 issue
of Time Magazine:

In one appearance, he is the author of an article on Burning Man.
Nuff said on that.

In the other appearance, he is quoted in Joshua Quittner's cover story
on "The Death of Privacy." (Time has technical cover stories in
back-to-back weeks... man, is the news slow in August. Clinton turned
51 two days ago, is that news? And he lost 30 pounds since the
beginning of the year. And Gingrinch lost 25, and Gore lost 20. Is
this what they mean by government downsizing? And Rohit's lost like 32.
What, am I the only one who's gained weight this year? Stupid
steroids... :)

For those of you who don't know him, Quittner is like the
Bizarro-Superman to Simson Garfinkel's Superduperman. Think of Quittner
as the news director for the Pathfinder Web site, a guy who hobnobs with
the goober smoochers at Wired magazine. Whereas Garfinkel is the
canonical NeXT Man for all Seasons, a young fresh fellow who can gaze
into the looking glass fifty years ahead and give you a respectable
vision of where your privacy will be a half century from now.

Quittner's piece -- "Invasion of Privacy" -- centers around the theme
that our privacy has been compromised not by an Orwellian Big Brotherly
blitzkrieg, but bit by bit in Little Brotherly steps (such as, for
example, when I crosspost a piece of private email Ron sent to me, to
FoRK :).

MIT media ho Sherry Turkle -- who I've now seen quoted in the popular
rags almost as much as fellow MIT prof Patty Maes -- goes on record as
believing "our culture is undergoing a kind of mass identity crisis,
trying to hang onto a global village of tens of millions. We have very
unstable notions about the boundaries of the individual." The point is
that popular culture shines its klieg lights on the most intimate
corners of our lives, and most of us play right along (like, say, when
Rohit feels the need to bare his soul to FoRK and any web surfers who
happen to want to peep). If all we really wanted was to be left alone,
explain the lasting popularity of Oprah and Sally and Ricki tell-all TV.
Memoirs top the best-seller lists, with books about incest and insanity
and illness leading the way. Perfect strangers at cocktail parties
speak of the most disturbing details of their upbringings. Why??

"Reasonable expectations of privacy" come not from any constitutionally
guaranteed right (exactly which of life, liberty, and tangible property
does privacy fall under?), but from the Supreme Court interpretation of
Congressional laws.

The rich, of course, can afford to screen themselves. And everyone
else? When mainframes gave way to internetworked desktop computers,
data that were once carefully hidden may now be only a few keystrokes
away. Independent Information Professional Carole Lane, author of
"Naked in Cyberspace: How to Find Personal Information Online" says, "In
a few hours, sitting at my computer, I can find out what you do for a
living, the names and ages of your spouse and children, what kind of car
you drive, the value of your house, and how much in taxes you pay on it."

Real privacy as we've known it, is fleeting. Every credit card or bank
transaction, every phone call, every email... is watchable.

So here comes the Kelly quote. "We think that privacy is about
information, but it's not. It's about relationships."

Back to the web of trust again. Gotcha.

The way Kelly sees it, there was no privacy in the traditional village
or small town; everyone knew everyone else's secrets. And that was
comfortable. I knew about you, and you knew about me. "There was a
symmetry to the knowledge," he says. "What's gone out of whack is we
don't know who knows about us anymore. Privacy has become asymmetrical."

Of course, the little guy is always on the "screwed" end of that
relationship. At least it seems. Example: Matt Drudge sends out his
email-newsletter to 60,000 people saying that a White House aide is a
wife beater. Then he retracts the story, and apologizes. Ok? Nope.
The aide's lawyer is planning a lawsuit to "deter Drudge and people like
him from doing this in the future."

Whoops. Misinformation and character assassination, like everything
else online, can't be taken back once it's out there. Entropy is always
increasing, and now we know where it's all coming from. As a result,
there's no way to correct damage to one's reputation, to protect one's
privacy, or to edit a FoRKpost that's forever been archived in Rohit's
little beanbox (a real sticking point with me).

So when Web-smear happens, there's nothing you can do. Shit, after all,
happens too. So when Tommy Hilfiger is falsely accused of racism, or
fake unauthorized nude pictures of Terry Hatcher or Brad Pitt spread
across, or Kurt Vonnegut is
misrepresented as a commencement speech author, and those bits go out on
the wire... well, once a piece of information is out there, it's nearly
impossible to obliterate. Just ask our friend at Xerox who was the butt
of a joke 13 years ago and still sends out emails asking that his name
be removed from said joke in archived copies on the Web.

Antibits, like bits, have no circulation boundaries. And, once
generated, they live forever. Open, exposed, free to be judged by
anyone who happens to peruse them. Even if we resolve some of the
privacy issues online, ownership of information (and validation of the
goodness of some information over others) will remain a central problem
in such a very large-scale decentralized system such as the Internet.

We've said it before, but let's reaffirm. Ownership, and privacy, are
fundamentally matters of trust. The foundations of trust -- and, as
Doug Lea pointed out on dist-obj, economics -- must be constructed for
us to migrate to that "next level" of computing...


Ironically, the thing that people are most hungry for -- meaning --
is the one thing science hasn't been able to give them.
-- Contact