Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Right to Privacy and/or Anonymity

"Privacy" is important, but I've been interested in the way the term has evolved.

The American Heritage® Dictionary says that "privacy" means "The quality or condition of being secluded from the presence or view of others. b. The state of being free from unsanctioned intrusion: a person's right to privacy. 2. The state of being concealed; secrecy."

That makes sense, to me at any rate.

That "right to privacy" and "condition of being secluded from the presence or view of others" is where things get interesting.

Over the years, I've witnessed people getting upset when retailers put cameras in stores, to inhibit shoplifters. Sometimes the retailer went over the top, with cameras in women's dressing rooms. Generally, though, I'm with the store owners. I pay for what I get, and don't like paying extra to cover the costs of folks who take a five-finger discount.

Now that cameras in stores are accepted, the battle for "privacy" has gone to the streets. And the Web.

For years now, people have been expressing righteous indignation and grave concern over the terrible threat to "privacy" represented by security cameras mounted on light poles, and online merchants keeping track of what a customer buys.

After a while, I realized that these people were not crazy. Rather, their definition of "privacy" was very far removed from mine.

I think of "privacy" as applying to things like:
  • Changing my underwear
  • Exactly how much is (or isn't) in my bank account
  • What my family and I discuss at home

"Privacy" for some people seems to mean not being recognized or remembered when, for example:
  • Walking down a sidewalk
  • Driving a car
  • Looking at something in a store
  • Buying something in a store
Those last two points took some real getting used to for me. I love it when someone in a store remembers that I bought a widget last month, and looked at three-pronged blivets last week, and points out a new widget-washing blivet. I may not buy the thing, but I appreciate being told about it.

I've had interesting discussions with acquaintances and friends who are horrified at the sort of invasion of privacy represented by cookies, which track what's done at websites. I see that sort of "spying" as being equivalent to what any half-way alert store owner would do for someone with cash or credit who entered his or her store.

If people are that concerned with "privacy," perhaps they should consider wearing paper bags over their heads when entering a convenience store.

Come to think of it, that would almost guarantee that they get prompt, personal, attention.

A shazam moment struck me some time ago. What many mean when they say "privacy" is what I mean when I say "anonymity."

I have a little more respect for "privacy advocates" now. It seems that what they ardently desire is a world where they are anonymous units in a sea of humanity, going about their solitary existences without knowing, or being known by, those around them.

There's a sort of heroic social asceticism to that desire, but I wouldn't want to live that way.

And I don't. I've lived in a town of 4,000 for the last two decades. There are some folks here who don't know me by sight, but many do. If I walk into a store downtown, the odds are that someone will recognize me. When I drive the family van down main, it would be odd if someone didn't recognize the vehicle, and notice that I was driving it.

And I don't feel that my privacy is being invaded.

Understanding that a branch of the civil liberties community are struggling to establish a citizen's Right to Anonymity has helped me to make sense of an important dialog in contemporary society.

This is a discussion that's likely to get more active, now that cities in the U.S. are talking about following the United Kingdom's lead in using security cameras to dissuade those residents who want to hurt other residents.

A quick look around the Web brought me to a few of the voices in this diverse digital debate. As usual, I don't necessarily agree with all these resources.
  • An erudite look at the issue: Privacy as Contextual Integrity ("Interesting law review article by Helen Nissenbaum"). This one is also somewhat diffucult to read. The cited author doesn't seem to believe in paragraph breaks - a communication impediment shared by many in academia.
  • The Neighbors Are Watching Via Surveillance Video (from the big-brother-is-next-door dept) "Yes, it's nice to have a world where people are unlikely to commit a crime since they're always being watched, but do we really want a world where no one has any real privacy?" Why are rhetorical questions so common?
  • Hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras across America track our behavior every day in the San Francisco Chronicle, October 17, 2004, "It pits the right to privacy, including anonymity in a crowd, against the potent fears of crime and, particularly these days, terrorism." Citing a Supreme Court ruling about "reasonable expectation of privacy," the article states that, as of 2003, "Even the American Civil Liberties Union doesn't object to video surveillance at national monuments and other potential al Qaeda targets." I must be on the right track, when such a respected journal as the San Francisco Chronicle links the right to privacy to anonymity.
  • Back-seat fun: careful, they might film you (July 8, 2007), an Australian article, discussing the dangers of security cameras in taxis. There seems to be a lack of security "when the images are downloaded, a report by Victoria's former privacy commissioner" said. The current privacy commissioner agrees.
This is serious: Aussies making out in the back of a cab face the peril of embarrassment.

Or maybe worse. If one or both of the ultrasmoochers have a significant other, that s. o. might be miffed. Or decide to express their displeasure in a crudely physical way.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.