May 15, 2004

Not Just Big Brother, But Lots of Little Brothers Too...

My father is jolted by his new issue of Reason:

IPcentral Weblog: The latest issue of Reason magazine arrived in the mail, and the cover causes a jolt. It is an aerial photo of my neighborhood, with my house circled and the legend underneath: "James DeLong: They Know Where You Are!"

But then he calms down:

The accompanying story has a rather different spin, though. Written by Declan McCullagh, chief political correspondent for and keeper of the well-known politech email list, it is entitled "Database Nation: The upside of 'zero privacy.'" The theme is that the increasing availability of data is excellent news for all of us in many ways, primarily because of the increases in efficiency and choice in the provision of goods and services that are enabled by information.

After all, if you think that a counterparty's possessing too much information about you is not to your benefit, you can always hide your identity in some way--undertake a transaction through intermediaries, establish cover identities via forgery and using them to set up PayPal accounts and anonymized email addresses, make sure to only use public-access computers out of the range of spycams, et cetera.

And he concludes:

As for the jolt of surprise -- my address has been in the telephone book forever, so anyone with a map and a crayon could always do what Reason did. My feeling of a loss of privacy is actually rather illusory.

I don't have settled (or especially informed) views on this, Dad. But I wonder if your first reaction might not have been more accurate. It takes 20 seconds to find and circle a house with a telephone book, a map, and a crayon--at $10 an hour total cost for low-wage labor, that's six cents an address. Very few people will have an incentive to organize and analyze their data on you at that cost. Those whom you want to send you magazines every month will, but how many others. I think we do have to worry about how governments--future Stasis--will use computers. And there are additional (but far lesser) potential vulnerabilities: weaknesses of the will at the personal or household level that might be exploited. One reason Ann Marie and I never let the kids watch Saturday morning cartoons was that we didn't want to be eroded by advertising-induced waves of pressure for X or Y. We hang up on all telephone solicitations immediately because we know our vulnerability to persuasion too well. And once enough people out there have figured out who we are, our internet wire transmits information both ways.

The way Larry Summers put it was that he wants everybody in the world to know that trying to sell him golf stuff is a waste of time, but that he might well bite if offered tennis stuff. But at the same time he's profoundly uneasy about negotiating with or interacting with somebody who knows and has had plenty of time to think about every detail about all of his purchases for the past twenty years.

Sometimes what look like quantitative changes--the falling cost of information processing--make qualitative differences. This may or may not be one of them. But it may be time to start thinking about how one would live in a world in which every conversation (even informal ones with close family members) may be broadcast around the world.

Posted by DeLong at May 15, 2004 11:05 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

David Brin's "The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?" is an excellent look at this and related ideas.

From the book description...

"In The Transparent Society, award-winning author David Brin details the startling argument that privacy, far from being a right, hampers the real foundation of a civil society: accountability. Using examples as disparate as security cameras in Scotland and Gay Pride events in Tucson, Brin shows that openness is far more liberating than secrecy and advocates for a society in which everyone (not just the government and not just the rich) could look over everyone else's shoulders. The biggest threat to our society, he warns, is that surveillance technology will be used by too few people not by too many."

Posted by: Rob Sperry on May 16, 2004 01:10 AM


I was shocked abou 6 months ago when someone pointed out to me that one could go to county government websites and look up everything the county government has on a person: Tax records, income level, address. I cant remember if I saw social security numbers or telephone numbers. I was dumbfounded. Then I asked my friend why this was allowed to happen? Why this wasnt on the news every night and was not causing public outrage.

Apperently people just have not caught on about it. Before, these records were public but you would probably have to make a trip or at least write some letters to the county capitol requesting each individual's data. Now it is the same public information which is available to everyone but the cost is 0 to access. I decided around that time that basically privacy was a luxury that I have that I will have to give up. That is one of the prices of living in an information society. Probably, most things about me will not be noticed by anyone. But it is Little Brother who is the threat. If someone wants to see me in the shower, or obtain a sample of my DNA, it will be no problem to just instruct a mosquito bot to go take pictures of me or extract a sample of my DNA.

As far as accountability goes, it would be much easier to kill someone anonamously with a maliciously programmed robot than it is now. It is violent or disruptive use of technology that really scares me. Not a loss of privacy per se, because there is just no holding on to that.

A BBC article I recently read reported US congressmen were planning to ban furtive photose like "upskirt" etc. They can ban all they like, but the govenment has no power to enforce upskirt photos any more than China will be able to censor the internet when the Chinese have satelite internet in their watches. Governments themselves will slowly decline in significance and Little Brother will be the real danger always.

Posted by: Joseph Malone on May 16, 2004 05:28 AM


And every little conversation at the work place would also be on the records -- then we'd know what gets you production: IQ or the so called "EQ"?

And I also expect -- and hope for -- the demise of the "CEO" character, and the workplace culture associated with it.

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on May 16, 2004 06:28 AM


How about real privacy laws where there is only opt in on data sharing, and real teeth to privacy violations. No data mining etc. and your ordinary commercial transactions are as safe as your federal tax records. What will computerization of medical records allow, or has allowed to drug companies trolling for business in league w/ health insurance companies? Maybe Congress can detour from Janet Jackson and flag burning to something important. Nah, they aren't paid by us, why should they?

Posted by: tmcotter on May 16, 2004 07:34 AM


Isn't the kind of privacy we're concerned about losing here a very modern development? I spent a couple of years living in a village in a developing country, and everyone knew everything about everyone else. The universe of people local enough to be interesting was small enough that any tidbit of information: an unusual purchase, a change in routine... anything, was synthesized quickly into a coherent narrative that got passed around to everyone in the village. If you wanted to do something privately, you had to literally keep it a secret -- do it behind closed doors without in any way signalling publically that there was anything untoward going on.

This certainly sounds annoying from a modern American point of view, but it really wasn't all that unlivable once you got used to it, and it's how people have lived since the dawn of history. The anonymity we're used to, being able to do things publically that we would prefer our acquaintances to remain unaware of by relying on the difficulty of compiling the huge amount of public information out there, is very new, probably post-WW II for most Americans.

What are the ill effects we expect from losing it?

Posted by: LizardBreath on May 16, 2004 08:23 AM


For those who missed it, medical privacy in the US is apparently at an end (see I have no idea whether the situation is similar here in Canada, though I should.

"The Justice Department now states that patients "no longer possess a reasonable expectation that their histories will remain completely confidential," adding that federal law "does not recognize a physician-patient privilege.""

Posted by: Tom Slee on May 16, 2004 08:24 AM


Suddenly, monitoring and information processing is cheap, and so, potentially, control is cheap.

The "ethics" of a society/polity in which monitoring/information processing was expensive no longer apply. Listing your phone number in a phone directory no longer has the same implications.

The penalty for, say, speeding on the freeway, which is appropriate, when the police can only observe and cite, say, one in 4,000 speeders, is not going to be appropriate when the police can cite one in 50, or one in 5.

The ACLU approach, which is a reactionary attempt to prevent use of cheaper monitoring to do what corporations and governments will do, is hopeless and misguided. Misguided because it stands in the way of desirable increases in technical efficiency and productivity; hopeless because you cannot stop a force of nature.

I suspect the solution is the "empowerment" of the individual by the same technology. Concealment of a kind is made cheaper by the same technology, which makes monitoring cheaper.

Posted by: Brian Wilder on May 16, 2004 09:43 AM


"In the greatest surveillance effort ever established, the US National Security Agency (NSA) has created a global spy system, codename ECHELON, which captures and analyzes virtually every phone call, fax, email and telex message sent anywhere in the world. ECHELON is controlled by the NSA and is operated in conjunction with the Government Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ) of England, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) of Canada, the Australian Defense Security Directorate (DSD), and the General Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) of New Zealand. These organizations are bound together under a secret 1948 agreement, UKUSA, whose terms and text remain under wraps even today."

"An international surveillance network established by the National Security Agency and British intelligence services has come under scrutiny in recent weeks, as lawmakers in the United States question whether the network, known as Echelon, could be used to monitor American citizens. The House Committee on Intelligence requested that the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency provide a detailed report to Congress explaining what legal standards they use to monitor the conversations, transmissions and activities of American citizens."

Connect the dots:


We've got nothing to worry about though.

Posted by: Dubblblind on May 16, 2004 10:51 AM


In the future, all blogs/websites will probably be anonymous. I guess there are vicissitudes to anonymity. The only fear I have is physical violence against my person, property, and loved ones. I don’t care if people know how much I make or where I live as long as they don’t hurt me with that information. There are no assurances in life.

Posted by: Andrew on May 16, 2004 11:09 AM


Ahh the price of entropy! Too bad markets don't yet exist for this all-important commodity. (Hey I have a research plan!)

Posted by: CSTAR on May 16, 2004 11:12 AM


"The biggest threat to our society, he warns, is that surveillance technology will be used by too few people not by too many."

Brin does not strike me as someone who has a realistic view of human psychology. His claim is basically that with good enough surveillance tech, everyone has the potential to survey and monitor everyone else so might as well dump privacy to practically eliminate crime, government oppression, etc.

As far as I can see this is quite a silly view. We will combine the worst aspects of small villages with the worst aspects of big societies. In a small village everyone knows what everyone else is doing. This produces community but also an often rather straitjacketed conformity. In a big city you lose some of that community but you can also more easily escape the busybodies who try to enforce conformity.

In an urban surveillance society, on the other hand, you start to get some nasty social dynamics. Because while it may be easy to COLLECT certain forms of information, it is not so easy to ANALYZE and USE the masses of data that result. In interpersonal affairs this would be a victory for moralists and busybodies. There will be enough of them to immediately tie any "deviant" behavior to an individual and make it public. But the elimination of privacy would not magically bring tolerance for the nonconformists. You will get a "small town" conformity effect enforced not by community rumor but by a small minority of people driven by enough moralistic outrage to spend lots of their time observing others. This observation will be directed disproportionately at deviants. Unlike a real small town where people know about everyone, there will be relatively few people interested in processing the information about your typical average, boring person and then disseminating it where it can do the most damage.

A similar thing applies to the government, but with a difference in technological expertise and capabilities. Frankly the internet and advancing personal surveillance tech do not and will not give citizens some magical capability to observe the government. You won't even be able to use your mini-cameras to catch cops beating people in jail if they use the simple expedient of removing such devices from suspects. It's not like you're going to be able to set up webcams in NSA headquarters either. I certainly don't see how it would do anything about the potential for intelligence abuses - collecting information on dissidents and threatening to use that against them. Indeed, they can sit back and relax while that information is collected for them and the public demands that something be done about the undesirables.

We're a society that doesn't watch CSPAN or support real investigative reporting. How the heck would there be enough people to do the difficult and mostly-boring job of collecting lots of amateur intelligence about their own government? Hell no, we're far more interested in gossip about each other and in enforcing conformity, that's where virtually all of the energy will go.

Posted by: Ian Montgomerie on May 16, 2004 12:16 PM


Incidentally, for what it's worth, Reason is a very good read and well worth the nominal (my guess: heavily subsidized) subscription price. My voting record is far closer to The American Prospect, but reading Reason is a pleasure.

Posted by: alkali on May 16, 2004 01:26 PM


DeLong's aware of Brin's ideas on this subject. He reviewed Brin's "The Transparent Society" soon after its publication:

I'm moderately ashamed to say that I haven't read Transparent Society, despite having read most of Brin's fiction, and having been exposed to his basic thoughts on privacy and transparency in lite form there.

Posted by: RT on May 16, 2004 02:30 PM


Powers that be have always been able to get to know every thing about any body, including each other. Any body willing to spend a reasonable amount of time and effort could also get to know a few things about any body, except they could not do it on as many people as powers that be.

It may even be that the new arrangement perhaps puts every body closer to equal foooting, no?

Posted by: Bulent on May 16, 2004 02:40 PM


I had a recent experience that relates to the issue of privacy, albeit peripherally. Bear with me and go easy on the flames if you feel that this is irrelevant:

I got a call from someone at the Ford Motor Company Credit department concerning someone whose name I did not recognize. I assumed that this person (let's call him Joe Blow, although I forgot his real name) had listed me or someone whose name was similar to mine as a credit reference and FMC was calling to check up on him. I didn't want to screw the guy's chances of getting credit because a mistake was made, so I called FMC (during my workday, because the time difference necessitated it).

It turns out this was not a credit check gone wrong, but instead Mr. Blow was my upstairs neighbor at the apartment complex I lived in, and the FMC representative started to ask me a number of questions about him. No, I had never met him. No, I had never seen a black Mustang in the garage where I park. And no, there is no way that I would relay a message to him. Actually, I regret saying no to that last one. I should have said yes, then asked how much I would be paid to work as a paid agent of the Ford Motor Company Credit Division, and whether they would insure me if Joe Blow took umbrage at the messenger of bad news and beat the shit out of me.

I guess all this is to say that I think that private corporations will be as blithely unconcerned as the government about the privacy (and safety) of others, and will eagerly enlist unrelated parties to do their dirty work. Yes, what the government can do to you is generally worse than what corporations can do to you (at least here in the U.S.), but the experience was far creepier than any I have had with any governmental agent.

Posted by: no name on May 16, 2004 03:21 PM


Part of this "database nation" also pertains to redistricting voting districts; it's why we have such radical extremes in the House of Representatives. The legislators in power hire consultants who can target and recommend voting districts which are then drawn into new maps; that gives us such delightful people as Tom Delay, not to mention lots of uncontested elections.

Posted by: Linkmeister on May 16, 2004 03:33 PM


I thought it would be worthwhile to post an example of (personal) information technology at work that we can all relate to. I don't think it unreasonable to say that the wrong person became president because of the abuse of the power of this technology.

"Five months before the election, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris ordered the removal of 57,700 names from Florida’s voter rolls on grounds that they were felons. Voter rolls contain the names of all eligible, registered voters. If you’re not on the list, you don’t get to vote.

The Florida Republicans wanted to block African Americans, who largely vote as Democrats, from voting. In 1999 they fired the company they were paying $5,700 to compile their felony “scrub” lists and replaced them with Database Technologies [DBT], who they paid $2.3 million to do the same job. [DBT is the Florida division of Choicepoint, a massive database company that does extensive work for the FBI.]

So where did DBT get their data? From the Internet. They went to 11 other states’ Internet sites and took names off dirt-cheap. They scrubbed Florida voters whose names were similar to out-of-state felons. An Illinois felon named John Michaels could knock off Florida voter John, Johnny, Jonathan or Jon R. Michaels, or even J.R. Michaelson. DBT matched for race and gender, but names only had to be similar to a certain degree. Names could be reversed, and suffixes (Jr., Sr.) were ignored, but aliases were included. So the felon John “Buddy” Michaels could knock non-felon Michael Johns or Bud Johnson Jr. off the voter rolls. This happened again and again. Although DBT didn’t get names, birthdays or social security numbers right, they were very careful to match for race. A black felon named Mr. Green would only knock off a black Mr. Green, but not a single white Mr. Green. That’s how DBT earned its $2.3 million.

It wasn’t reported in mainstream press, but the NAACP sued Harris and the gang for the black purge, and won."


"What happened to Choicepoint? Bush is handing them the big contracts in the War on Terror; immigration reviews, DNA cataloging, airport profiling, and their voting systems are being rolled out across the country."

Posted by: Dubblblind on May 16, 2004 05:02 PM


"DeLong's aware of Brin's ideas on this subject. He reviewed Brin's "The Transparent Society" soon after its publication:"

Thanks for the pointer!

Posted by: Rob Sperry on May 16, 2004 08:23 PM


I spent Saturday afternoon with my eight year old son on a tour or Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena. I have a friend who works there (Cal (BS) '82 MIT (PhD) '85); it was the annual open house to the public and science exhibitions for children. He showed my son and his daughters around. The highlights were the kids lying down and having a six-wheeled robot truck drive over them; and, looking as the 42" flat panel screen hanging on the wall outside my friend's office and moving a mouse to zoom in on an image of the Western United States, then California, then Southern California, then Los Angeles County, then Jet Propulsion Labs, then over to my neighborhood, then to my street. I'm told they can get a lot closer with a lot better resolution. My friend is now mapping the rain forests to track deforestation using radar technology to make maps and pictures.

Posted by: Cal on May 16, 2004 10:13 PM


Here something to make you pause and think (if your phone number is listed). Google your phone number (with area code, format XXX-XXX-XXXX) you get a "Phonebook results" for listed numbers (name and address) with links to *Yahoo! Maps* & *MapQuest*. Click through the map links, up pops a map of your neighborhood with a star on your house.
Not as dramatic as the photo Brad's dad received, OTOH just about everyone has access to google.
And it takes about 10 seconds.

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