Communion Of Dreams

Looking back: Privacy? You don’t need no steenkin’ provacy!

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on November 12, 2007.


Over the weekend, news came out of yet another “Trust us, we’re the government” debacle, this time in the form of the principal deputy director of national intelligence saying that Americans have to give up on the idea that they have any expectation of privacy. Rather, he said, we should simply trust the government to properly safeguard the communications and financial information that they gather about us. No, I am not making this up. From the NYT:

“Our job now is to engage in a productive debate, which focuses on privacy as a component of appropriate levels of security and public safety,” Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence, told attendees of the Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s symposium in Dallas.

* * *

“Too often, privacy has been equated with anonymity,” he said, according to a transcript [pdf]. “But in our interconnected and wireless world, anonymity – or the appearance of anonymity – is quickly becoming a thing of the past.”

The future, Mr. Kerr says, is seen in MySpace and other online troves of volunteered information, and also in the the millions of commercial transactions made on the web or on the phone every day. If online merchants can be trusted, he asks, then why not federal employees, who face five years in jail and a $100,000 fine for misusing data from surveillance?

Or, from the Washington Post:

“Our job now is to engage in a productive debate, which focuses on privacy as a component of appropriate levels of security and public safety,” Kerr said. “I think all of us have to really take stock of what we already are willing to give up, in terms of anonymity, but (also) what safeguards we want in place to be sure that giving that doesn’t empty our bank account or do something equally bad elsewhere.”

This mindset, that allowing the government to just vacuum up all of our personal information, to monitor our email and phone communications, or whatever else they are doing but don’t want to tell is, is somehow equivalent to my posting information on this blog or giving some company my credit card number when I want to buy something, is fucking absurd. First off, there is a fundamental difference between what I willingly reveal to someone in either a personal or commercial exchange, and having my information taken without my knowledge or agreement. To say otherwise is to say that just because my phone number is listed in the phone directory, everyone who has the ability to do so is free to listen in on my phone conversations.

Even worse, it shows how we are viewed by this individual, and our government: as their subjects, without rights or expectations of being in control of our lives.

And the notion that we can just trust governmental employees with our private information is patently ridiculous. First off, saying that we should because we already trust commercial businesses with our private information is completely specious – how many times in the last year have you heard of this or that company’s database having been hacked and credit card, personal, and financial information having been stolen? This alone is a good reason to not allow further concentration of our private data to be gathered in one place. Secondly, think of the many instances when hard drives with delicate information have been lost by government employees in the State Department, at the Department of Veterans Affairs, or even at Los Alamos National Laboratory – and those are just the things which have actually made it into the news. Third, and last (for now), anyone who has had any experience with any government agency can attest to just how screwed up such a large bureaucracy can be, in dealing with even the simplest information.

I recently went round and round with the IRS over some forms which they thought I had to file. I didn’t, and established that to the satisfaction of the office which contacted me. Yet for six months I was still being contacted by another office in charge with collecting the necessary fees and fines – three times I had to send a copy of the letter from the initial office which cleared me of the matter, before they finally, and almost grudgingly, admitted that I owed them no money (for not filing the documents I didn’t need to file). These are not the same people I want to trust to handle even *more* information about me.

Allowing the government to take this position – that the default should be that they can just take whatever information about us they want, so long as they promise not to misuse it – is to abandon any illusions that we are in any way, shape, or form a free people. It would turn the entire equation of the Constitution on its head, saying that the government is sovereign and we its subjects. That such a thing is even proposed by a government employee is extremely revealing, and should cause no little amount of concern.

Jim Downey


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