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Expectations of privacy - time to shut it down?

© August 2013 Anthony Lawrence

Groklaw shuts down, the NSA spying scandal gets worse. Is this Orwellian or just business as usual?

I've thought about this starting long before the current flap. Back in 2004 some folks thought Gmail was "creepy". Back then I said:

Of course, the day may come when some government body can analyze my email and decide that I am a risk to the State. Well, heck, they don't need Gmail for that. Wherever my email lives, it can be tracked down, resurrected from backup, extracted real time, etc. And if you are one of my correspondents, your email would be filtered and scanned too. Better protect yourself right now: send me email lambasting me for belonging to the ACLU and for voting for liberal candidates. But there's no increased risk to either of us because of Gmail.

While the ultra-paranoid may say that day has come, I don't think anything has actually changed. There never has been privacy. When I step out of my house, people see me. When I open my mouth to talk, people hear me. Sometimes people don't like the way I look or what I have to say. Someday, in some dystopian world, my past and current words or actions may be illegal. In fact, it has been pointed out that there are so many obscure laws today that all of us are probably accidental offenders at some level - and some of the offenses can be quite serious!.

I've said before that one solution to privacy is not to have any:

Sometimes I think that openness is the only final answer. If you don't have privacy anywhere, your privacy can't be abused. Your behavior might change: if you know that video cameras are watching you wherever you are, you won't be breaking littering laws. If every keystroke you type at your computer is available to the world, you aren't likely to be soliciting sex from minors.

At Let's Put Security Surveillance Cameras Everywhere I opined that if "they" can watch us, we should be able to watch "them".

Anyone could watch anywhere, but everyone would know who has been watching.

In some sense, isn't that what Anonymous is doing?

The solution isn't privacy laws

I'm sorry. Once again my liberal peers will want to ride me out of town on a pole, but stronger privacy laws are not the answer. No matter what you do, somebody is going to abuse those protections. They'll do it for personal gain, they'll do it for spite, or they'll do it because they honestly think they are in danger if they do not. That's reality.

No, what we need is an overriding principle that protects us from harm. It's simple, really: An it harm none, do as thou wilt.

Isn't that what we really want? Of course that's easy in the abstract and hellishly difficult in practice, but it is our goal: to be able to live free from unwarranted interference in our lives.

"I don't want people knowing my business!", you say. But people DO know your business. What you really mean is "I don't want anybody to use knowledge against me". That's hard too, because (again) people will: for spite, for gain, and from fear.

What we want is for our laws to be just. We want to "do what's right". We are not homogenous, so we disagree on what is harm and what is not. While I can hope that our disagreements might someday be more cerebral than visceral, we likely always will disagree and some people will be punished unfairly (at least from their point of view).

So is there an answer? As usual, I have no clue. If your government is spying on you, it's because somebody is angry, curious, greedy or afraid. They want power, they want to punish, they want to protect. Their motives may be selfish or altruistic, and it may be very hard to discern one motive from another. Regardless, it will happen.

Open season

Which brings me full circle to my feelings of a decade ago. The only real solution to less privacy is more openness. If you don't have privacy anywhere, your privacy can't be abused.. If you can't watch me without my knowing you are watching and without me being able to watch back, I am more protected.

And of course that gets messy and sticky too. What doesn't? Obviously there are things that need privacy - you need to give me a password. That can't be open, but if you have that ability, you can make anything private, so we are seemingly back where we started, right? Even if the act of making something private was itself public, acts can be hidden within acts.

Or perhaps not. Math Advances Raise the Prospect of an Internet Security Crisis warns us that computer privacy might become impossible shortly.

"Our conclusion is there is a small but definite chance that RSA and classic Diffie-Hellman will not be usable for encryption purposes in four to five years," said Stamos, referring to the two most commonly used encryption methods.

That has implications far beyond individual privacy. It would shut down the Internet, make all electronic commerce (including banking) impossible - it could destroy life as we know it and throw commerce back hundreds of years. It's serious stuff: if you are a paranoid doomsday type, this is a scenario that perhaps isn't quite so whacky as whatever drives you to hoard canned goods now.

Orwellian? No. Something much different and far more frightening.

That would be "open season" whether we liked it or not. You'd have no privacy at all on the Internet. Not that we'd likely care at that point; you and I would be too busy figuring out how we'd survive - worrying about our personal privacy wouldn't be our concern!

I could say "Let's hope it doesn't come to that", but if the folks at MIT are wrong, they are only wrong in their estimate of time. The handwriting is on the wall: current encryption will be broken and talk of quantum encryption is too far out and may be impractical for common uses anyway. Being spied on by some government agency may raise your hackles, but being spied on by criminals could be a more dangerous concern for most of us.

Maybe the early defectors from the Internet are right. Not for the reasons they gave, but perhaps right just the same. I'm old enough to remember a time without the Web.. maybe we all need to opt out?

Naaw. Like the frogs in slowly boiling water, we'll sit it out until we are thoroughly cooked.

Got something to add? Send me email.

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Inexpensive and informative Apple related e-books:

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El Capitan: A Take Control Crash Course

Photos for Mac: A Take Control Crash Course

Sierra: A Take Control Crash Course

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