May 31st, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Setec Astronomy: So Far, Loss of Privacy Has Worked Out OK

Now that the first PATRIOT Act is up for renewal, the same old debate is going on as last time; the same sides are taking the same positions in policy journals, essays, websites, and op-eds in the national newspapers. Now that the PATRIOT Acts have been around for a long time, both sides are scouring recent history (or trying to, since the Act itself makes its usage hard to track) for both successes and abuses, and both sides are coming up with pretty thin gruel. If the PATRIOT Acts have lead to any significant successes in the (so-called, really long-since-over) War on Terror, nobody seems to be saying so. While the PATRIOT Acts have lead to documented cases of various government agencies using their new powers to spy on innocent people, nobody's found any evidence that any of them were particularly harmed by it, except in the vaguest sense of "wow, what a waste of taxpayer dollars."

So let me talk about three even older curtailments of privacy: ATM cameras and private surveillance video, DEA analysis of prescription writing, and the increasing use of Social Security numbers as unique identifiers.

Ever since the first ATMs put in cameras as anti-fraud and anti-theft devices, we've been periodically reminded that there's a permanent record of anything that happens within about a 45° cone from the front of the ATM, with a range that varies only based on lighting conditions and the increasing resolution of the cameras. Every business under the sun has also been putting up surveillance video cameras, and many of them keep a week's worth of tape (shot at about 3 frames per second) on file, so anything that happened anywhere near a business parking lot, or in sight of one, in the last week can be reasonably easily seen on video. Every time someone suggests an expansion of these cameras, such as stoplight cameras or street-light cameras, the same people claim that it's an invasion of privacy, and the same courts and experts remind people that US law clearly says that you have no reasonable expectation of privacy outdoors in a public place. In the many years since these cameras started being rolled out, what has the effect been? Especially lately, with resolution and retention improving, an awful lot of bank robbers and kidnappers and car thieves and other felons have been caught and convicted. Now, show me any large number of innocent people who were hurt by having their legal activities photographed or videotaped by an ATM camera or a parking lot camera?

(OK, I can think of two, both identical: on two separate occasions, people who were setting up fashion shows in malls didn't realize that they'd set up the models' dressing rooms in view of mall security cameras, and video leaked out for salacious purposes. Pretty thin harm, compared to how useful footage from other surveillance cameras has been in dealing with Amber Alerts.)

Whenever any doctor writes you a prescription for a drug that's popular on the street, a record gets created where the DEA can get to it pretty easily. Doctors who write a lot of such prescriptions get flagged for observation by human agents. So in theory, every time you've ever been prescribed Valium, or Tylenol 3, or Ritalin, a record of this fact gets stored somewhere that frankly isn't very secure; there are all kinds of people inside the DEA who can find this out. But the only time in recent history that I can think of those records being used in a way that revealed them to the public, especially to the general public, involved a public figure, loud-mouthed moralist and anti-drug crusader Rush Limbaugh. I'd say that that revelation served the public good.

Then there was this fascinating story in today's New York Times, and that's what got me thinking about this again: "CIA Expanding Terror Battle Under Guise of Charter Flights." What that's got to do with this is that the various successor companies to Air America were caught out by journalists because of various incursions into privacy rights that were written into the law over the years. If you own an airplane, you forfeit an awful lot of privacy rights right there: the tail number of your airplane goes into a database that's accessible to the public by law, and it reveals your home address and Social Security number to the world. I have yet to hear of any abuses of this, even though the regulations in question go back dozens of years. But when reporters got curious about the airplanes that the CIA was using to turn un-charged detainees over to 3rd party countries for torture, their job was made a lot easier by the fact that it's now a lot harder for the CIA to make up fictitious people to chair their front corporations. Sarbanes-Oxley and other securities laws make it easy to track the "real" owners of any company, the FAA regulations make it trivially easy to track any tail number to an owning company, and the wide variety of techniques that reporters and others have for tracking Social Security numbers bit the CIA on the backside. Reporters were able to prove that the SSNs in question were almost certainly fake, by proving that people who'd supposedly been born around 1949 were only issued SSNs in the late 1990s.

In other words, just about the only people whose actual privacy is getting invaded are public figures involved in wrong-doing. The same technologies and the same laws make it trivially easy for anyone to invade your privacy, too - but nobody cares enough to put the manpower on it. East Germany under Communist rule had no shortage of privacy-invading technologies, but in order to get any use out of them, they had to hire literally half of the population of the country to spy on the other half. This was one of the things that lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall; even Germans couldn't afford that much surveillance indefinitely. And even then, there were people engaged in anti-government activities who escaped the net. Trying to use surveillance on millions or hundreds of millions of people is too labor intensive to be practical. What's more, the rewards just aren't there. If the IRS or whatever were to somehow obtain the technology and the manpower to audit every tax return and surveil every taxpayer, they'd probably round up quite a bit of extra tax revenue. But to do it to any one individual taxpayer, the average reward is almost below the cost of obtaining the revenue; they only bother to spot-check randomly to inspire fear.

The people who have financial, military, police, or governmental power to hurt you have more to lose from loss of privacy than you do.

Now, I have to run out the door, so I'll say more about that last point later.
  • Current Music
    Dual Systems - 2 Suns (D I G I T A L L Y - I M P O R T E D -
  • Tags