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Specifically, "What's wrong with BigBrother"?

I'll explain.

In PrivacyMatters there is an ongoing debate on whether ID cards are a bad thing or not. This has set MoonShadow thinking about related matters.

Putting aside for the moment the questions of effects of corruption, overall usefulness or relative lack thereof of ID cards, priority of effort, and relevancy of an increased ability to prosecute people for trivia while making things easier for big-time criminals (which are all being discussed in PrivacyMatters), it seems that even the perception of high surveillance and ability to track people as being bad is not widely shared. While some see the ability of complete strangers to, say, track their movements or find out their address and date of birth as being akin to having a WebCam set up in their loo, others don't have any sort of problem with the idea.

It would be interesting to see if there is an argument for privacy in general other than "doesn't it feel icky when someone watches you go to the loo?", since MoonShadow knows at least one person that would answer "no" to even that statement, and is sure that person is not alone.

Taking things to their logical extreme, certainly when MoonShadow read 1984, he found the thought of living in such a world quite horrifying; but suppose you started with just the all-pervasive surveillance, without the political agenda or the insane sadistic people at the top. MoonShadow still wouldn't like living in such a world, and therefore opposes anything that seems to bring this world closer to that one without exceptional benefit in return, on principle; but, having given it quite some thought, he really doesn't feel he could convince someone that (say) doesn't mind having a loo with a French window of the validity of that point of view. Is desire for privacy, then, entirely subjective?
StuartFraser is answering "no; there is an objective right to privacy and no society which does not allow for this is truly free"; he is doing so in essay form, and he will post it here when finished. Unfortunately, tomorrow I am InstallingLinux? on this WindowsBox, so it may take some time....
Linux installed, if not entirely working. Hence a) I've written up my thoughts and b) I've abridged much of what I was going to write, due to time spent trying to make Linux behave and irritation at having to spend time making Linux behave. Anyway:


When the continental congress of the United States of America debated the first ten amendments to the constitution, collectively to be known as the Bill of Rights; one of the rights they saw fit to include was the right to privacy:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches....shall not be violated"(1)

Why, then, did the founding fathers see fit to enshrine this as a constitutional right, to be protected against encroachment by legislature and executive by the judiciary? The Constitution itself gives a reason;

"We the people of the United States, in order to...establish justice..., and secure the blessing of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America."(2)

The founding fathers of the world's greatest nation, then, saw in their wisdom what today has been forgotten by many of their descendants - that a society which watches its citizens constantly has ceased to be a free society.

Why is this? Many would argue that if the individuals within a society placed no value on privacy, then a society which did not allow any could still be free. In a generation where Big Brother has become a television show which shows, in microcosm, just such a society, this becomes an ever more dangerous fallacy.

The innocent, it is said, have nothing to fear. In the most simplistic way, this statement is of course true - but any consideration of this platitude beyond the most superficial will realise that there is a problem. Namely, who is to decide who the innocent are?
In the English-speaking world, everyone is assumed innocent until they can be proven guilty by due process. So what, then, is the point of surveillance? If a society decides to observe a member of that society, covertly or overtly, it is (presumably) a decision made in the expectation that they will commit, or have committed some form of crime; that is, that they are guilty. So continual surveillance of an entire population can be seen to be incompatible with the presumption of innocence; being, in effect, a presumption of guilt.

There are other considerations, too. Perhaps one of the most worrying was expressed in a similar manner over two thousand years ago;

"Qui custodiet ipses custodes?"(3)

Whether the question is to be "Who guards the guards?" or "Who watches the watchers?", it needs an answer. If surveillance is to be carried out by law enforcement agencies (as it is currently) then there is great potential for conflict of interest. The ultimate goal of law enforcement agencies is to prevent crime; it is thus unsuprising that such agencies tend to favour pre-emptive measures. Taken to extremes this can be seen in Phillip K. Dick's short story Minority Report, where psychics predict murders and the perpetrators are arrested before they can happen; despite the fact that these men and women have committed no crime. Continued surveillance, however, leads to adoption of similar policies - people who are seen to have lifestyle elements in common with criminals are often assumed to be criminals, and are treated accordingly. (The libertarian left would, of course, argue that this was true of those who consume marijuana in Great Britain today). 

Ultimately, though, the prime reason that privacy is a requirement for humans to be free is that it is a requirement for freedom of conscience, freedom of thought and freedom of action. Increased surveillance of all kinds brings more and more information into the public domain; and whilst this is in many instances a good thing, there is also a great degree of information the release of which would do no good - from data relating to the practices and employees of intelligence and counter-terrorist services to private discussions of heresies against prevailing local opinion. Constant and universal surveillance creates a climate in which thoughts and actions which run  contrary to prevailing orthodoxies can become dangerous; freedoms are thus curtailed.

It was once said that for a people to be truly free they must be capable of overthrowing the government which ruled them. In a society where any opposition can be overheard and thus potentially squashed, this is not true. Is it truly possible to conceive of a functioning democracy where the governing party has full knowledge of the aims, plans and intentions of all political opposition? Alternatively, could a society where the machinery of surveillance was free from democratic oversight retain a functioning democracy? Knowledge, it is said, is power; and to place this amount of power in the hands of what would remain a small group of people must be almost an invitation to dictatorship; however well-intentioned.

1. US Constitution & Bill of Rights; Amendment IV
2. Ibid; Preamble
 http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/constitution.billofrights.html
3. Satires, Juvenal




I always groan when someone starts talking about the 'wisdom' of the 'founding fathers' as if they were some kind of saints of democracy whose flawless words shine like a beacon. Someone else can take issue with 'world's greatest nation', too. I'm just going to point out that 'privacy' does not equal 'freedom from unreasonable searches', that the assertion that privacy is 'a requirement for freedom of conscience, freedom of thought and freedom of action' is totally unsupported, and that the eassayist needs to be reminded that we live neither in China nor, as Ross 'rent a scary quote' Anderson might have us believe, in a country that is but a few short steps from becoming China.

'It was once said that for a people to be truly free they must be capable of overthrowing the government which ruled them': by whom? why should we believe them?

A lot of assertions with only the flimsiest supporting rhetoric, arguments from unspecified authority, and lionising of rebels, does not a compelling argument make (and that's before we start on the general lack of coherence and flow).

C-.




Thoughts?

Privacy is complex - I think of it as being layered, with most private thoughts at one end to public statements (like marriage, details of births, etc), to worldwide accessible stuff (like statements made on news, web, wiki). People seem to have different privacy thresholds (and paranoia levels), and I would personally prefer not to be monitored, yet am lax on data hygeine [disposal of data which could be used for purposes I wouldn' like]. I think everyone has a threshold, even if it is the no kissing rule in pretty woman.

It is a reflection on the society we are brought up in, as well as introvertion/extrovertion. --Garbled


Privacy is a tool of subversion.  Privacy is what lets two people get together to conspire against a third stronger person.  Lack of privacy is a requirement for an organised minority to rule over a disorganised majority against their wishes.  There is very little privacy in prisons - there is a reason for this.  It is when you cannot identify and crack down on troublemakers early that you get riots. --DouglasReay
Seems reasonable. But is that an argument for or against privacy? Does phrasing it 'intrusion is a tool of tyranny' change this? -- TI
I believe it is an argument for privacy.  Privacy helps keep power in the hands of the majority.  More specifically, privacy destabilises the situation where an unpopular tyrant (backed by elite forces) is attempting to keep control of the opposed majority of the population by making it difficult for them to organise effectively by monitoring communications and stamping down on any signs of organisation before it spreads. --DouglasReay



Well, what a lot of nasty comments.  And as someone who switches between rabid "Everything should be private" and rabid "Everything should be open" there is little within that I agree with.  Certainly the presentation irks me - yes, Americans founded themselves with a self balancing system - where if any group got too much power it could be overthrown.  But that is primarily a political decision (a clever one, reminiscent of Sparta) not a 'fundamental rights' kind of one.

I know what you mean - the whole "it's in the US constitution therefore it's a fundamental human right" (where "human" is usually defined as "american, or someone americans like") thing is a bit offputting. "The founding fathers of the world's greatest nation".. *bleh*. But as far as I am concerned, being in the US constitution doesn't make a (concept/moral or political position/rule/law) worse or less valid either. I think its presence or absence in the constitution by itself is an irrelevancy, and stated reasons why it's present or absent, should there be any, ought to be evaluated on par with any other reasons why the speaker thinks the (concept/moral or political position/rule/law) is good or bad. ^^;; Uh - does that actually make any sense? I might come back and try to resay it.. - MoonShadow
It makes sense enough, I think.  Also have to acknowledge that whilst stupid, the "the founding fathers said this" argument is a very effective one when used with some people.  They are the Authorities, after all.

It's an interesting question whether privacy reaches its goal.  Total privacy does indeed allow for plotting and an imbalance of power - but that works both ways - allowing those currently in power to abuse it and hang on to it.

(Common application of) British law acknowledges this - giving the press the right to pester those in positions of power, but not the common public.  (Unless a member of the common public goes and does something extraordinary.)

But why is this a big deal?  People like to have some privacy.  A major reason for this is that they enjoy committing small crimes and not being discovered.  Many of those crimes are not even illegal, merely embarrassing.  The question then becomes, what level to set the privacy at to catch most of those planning big evil society harming events (which yes, probably includes political overthrow) without hurting the average person.  Surely this question can be answered by statistics?

Where you set it to avoid undesirable overthrow, but to allow sensible overthrow is an open question - we won't have a real answer until the US has had a couple of coups.  But I think that's a silly quesiton, really.  A government that needs to be overthrown is likely to set very low levels of privacy, or set high levels then ignore them.  --Vitenka




MoonShadow, attempting to condense the above, comes up with:

irrelevancy, IMO
Correct. It's what is technically known as an introduction; moreover, as a historian I like to establish a historical basis for argument. Like I said, this is a severely abridged form of an essay I am still writing. I was not proving any point with this paragraph --SF
looks unsupported at first glance, until you see this: "Constant and universal surveillance creates a climate in which thoughts and actions which run contrary to prevailing orthodoxies can become dangerous; freedoms are thus curtailed." MoonShadow thinks this is a very important point, but it assumes widespread surveillance inevitably entails repression - the real world has yet to come up with a situation where the two are disjoint, AFAIK, but it's not immediately obvious why they can't ever be.
My argument was "Is it truly possible to conceive of a functioning democracy where the governing party has full knowledge of the aims, plans and intentions of all political opposition? Alternatively, could a society where the machinery of surveillance was free from democratic oversight retain a functioning democracy?"; in the abstract, I could consider either to be possible, but when dealing with humans as they have been shown to behave throughout recorded history? Put the potential for near-absolute power in enough people's hands, and someone will take it.
This is important; furthermore a point which was rather understated (and will get revised, upon acquisition of a RoundTuit) was that it encourages preemptive law-making and law-enforcement (something that is somewhat insidiously creeping into this country with the most recent mental health act, which in effect is "Habeas Corpus doesn't apply if we can get a doctor to say it doesn't"; but that wasn't the point).

MoonShadow thinks that the point about suppressing opinion - whether it's the government suppressing "unapproved-of" thinking, or the majority suppressing minority opinions - is an important one. Fringe opinions can be dangerous, yes; but MoonShadow would say that societies typically grow, improve, push back frontiers at the fringes while the mainstream stagnates. Kill the fringes, and ultimately you kill society; the ability to think and speak freely is part of what keeps the fringes alive, and privacy is a requirement to think and converse freely (if everyone's speech, behaviour etc. is visible to everyone else, "nails that stick out will be hammered down"). Yesterday's fringes are today's mainstream. um - I'll come back and support some of this a bit more, probably. - MoonShadow
StuartFraser agrees, thinks this is the most important point, and still doesn't like the way he phrased it....



if everyone's speech, behaviour etc. is visible to everyone else, "nails that stick out will be hammered down"

Care to justify this?
In abstract, or through reference to human history? The latter is far easier.
MoonShadow doesn't think it's particularly justifiable in abstract. MoonShadow is of the opinion that it's easy to justify from human history, however; barring miracles, it's been repeatedly shown to be very reproducible, both on minor (e.g. treatment of gay people earlier in 20thC) and major (e.g. criticism of government in China) scales.

Perhaps it might also be useful to decide whether you're talking about 'privacy' generally or 'surveillance' by the police or the government?

I don't think there is an enormous distinction. In order to minimise the probability of getting an edit conflict, I'll come back later with the justification. --SF
There is little distinction. The police and government consist of private individuals who can and inevitably will mistreat the data (trawl UKCrypto for BBC news links; there's about one a week). Data gathered and retained by police and government for any length of time inevitably leaks to the general public. Besides, as the number of people employed [doing surveillance for the government] increases, distinction between "entitled to see surveillance information" and "not entitled to see surveillance information" wears thin.. - MoonShadow
I believe that there is a right to privacy in a free society (I'm not going to start arguing about FundamentalRights? here). Like all rights, it is not absolute but must be balanced with other rights and needs to produce a stable society. Surveillance, by any organisation, governmental or non (examples of NGOs that operate what could be called (in broad terms) surveillance would include pressure groups, advertising agencies and insurance companies), is an intrusion of privacy; surveillance by police and government tends to be the most dangerous and most intrusive, so it was what I concentrated on. In any case, the legal framework which should establish a right to privacy can be applied equally to the police/intelligence services and NGOs. (I'm aware that this is not entirely true of current legislation in the Western world; this is not to my mind relevant). And I got an edit conflict anyway --SF



Oppressive regimes do away with privacy; therefore a lack of privacy will inevitably lead to an oppressive regime. I'm sorry, I don't follow that.  Is it the same way in which not being able to stand up straight leads to drunkenness? --ChiarkPerson
You are attacking a StrawMan. Doing away with privacy is oppressive, which is a point you do not seem to accept. It is oppressive because it makes it very easy for people with unpopular / "unauthorised" opinions / behaviour to be singled out and persecuted. This, in turn, is bad because it ultimately causes society as a whole to stagnate, as I have outlined above. A side effect of this is that it makes it easier for people with power to retain that power (by doing away with competitors before the latter can obtain enough power to dislodge the incumbents), which is why it is a favoured tool of oppressive regimes. --MoonShadow
In addition, your StrawMan can be turned around; and it is then a valid argument. Opressive regimes do away with privacy in order to maintain themselves; therefore safeguarding privacy is an excellent bulwark against the establishment of an opressive regime. (If X is a common property of the set of objects Y (and in addition, is very rare outside of set Y), then it would seem logical to infer that X was necessary for Y; and thus that Y can be prevented by preventing X). --SF



A logical aside:

There is a difference bewtween properties and causes.

For instance, most human bodies that have the property of being dead also have the property of being cold, and very very few human bodies that do not have the property of being dead do not also have the property of not having a very low core body temperature.  That does not, however, allow us to deduce that we may prevent all human deaths by making sure people wrap up warmly.
No; but it would decrease the number of human deaths substantially, by removing as a cause of death hypothermia and also reducing the death rates due to many illnesses such as pneumonia which attack immune systems weakened by exposure to cold.

On the other hand, if you are arguing against a syllogism such as:

All countries will at times have forces applied to them that will tend to push them towards oppression.
Any country that is pushed towards oppression will become oppressive unless that push is countered.
A push towards oppression may only be countered by privacy.
THEREFORE
Any country without privacy will sooner or later become oppressive.

Then you should be attacking the premises, not the logic.

I am arguing neither of these things. I am arguing that:

I am also noting:
Eureka! Remove all the people, and we have it reduced to a previously solved problem!  Quick - to the BatSilo?!  --Vitenka
A truly brilliant plan! Now, where was I...ah yes, RunAndHide!



DouglasReay has read the Schneier blog comments, and has several thoughts:

1. It is all very well getting indignant at a Houston's police chief named Harold wanting to use surveillance cameras and telling him "I'm not paying you to violate my constitutional rights.  I don't trust you to keep your flies zipped while watching me nude, and if I am going to be a porn star for you, I want to be paid.  I'm learning the guitar, but I am not very good yet.".  All valid reasons in theory, but they don't talk to him.  Think about it.  Here's a cop intent on cutting down the number of stabbings and muggings in an inner city.  He doesn't think his men will be spending their time putting clips of poor guitar players on the internet.  Even requests to video his son's college dorm room and his tax returns are going to miss the point.  He is worried about death, not embarassment.  Any reply to Harold's question "if you are not doing anything wrong, why should you worry about it?" that stands a chance of reaching him needs to address what, for him, is the issue - real tangible concrete deaths and crimes.

2. It is all very well answering the question "where should be balance be between liberty and security" by saying "further towards liberty than the current posititon".  But it is easy to characterise as a fanatic anyone who always shouts in one direction.  I think there is an onus on the supporters of liberty to say. "Ok, we are in favour of more liberty at the moment, but you are right in that there does have to be a balance struck.  Here is where we think the balance point should be <...>, and here are our reasons why <...>.  And here, for argument's sake, is an example of a situation where we think _more_ security and less liberty than the present balance would be justified <hypothetical situation>"

3. I think the most important liberty that privacy guards and intrusions threaten, is the liberty to voice doubts about those in power and associate with others who also voice doubts, without being identified as such by those in power.  Beware any system that makes it potentially dangerous to listen to the other sides of an argument making their case in their own words.  Doubt breeds fear breeds dissention.  The problem is one of hearts and minds.
Interestingly, [David Brin wrote a piece on 'The Transparent Society'] arguing that long term our only choice is whether just the police (ie a powerful minority) get to watch the cameras or whether we all do.  It occurs to me that if we all have access to live feeds from all public security cameras, there is nothing to stop coorporations from linking the feeds up to databases and image recognition software to keep track who goes where, doing what and with whom.  Bang would go freedom of association. --DR
See [Internet Eyes]--DR


See also [discussion on Bruce Schneier's blog].


[Hope I'm not intruding, Big Brother, but have you seen my brolly?]


See also ['I've Got Nothing to Hide' and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy]
Seen, but not impressed by. The author certainly doesn't manage to come up with any examples of real harm caused to someone who has nothing to hide: he invents a load of new categories of 'privacy harms' but fails to justify why they are, in fact, harms. For instance, he holds simply having information collected about you as a per se harm (he calls it 'surveillance'), but that's begging the very question that he claims to be addressing. He does not provide any compelling reasons, or indeed any reasons at all, to adopt his reframing of the idea of 'privacy' (he does provide reasons to reject the idea of being able to define privacy by defining 'necessary and sufficient' conditions, such as 'the right to be let alone', but it does not follow that we should adopt a Wittgensteinian model and, even if we should, that we should adopt his Wittgensteinian model). His repeated return to Kafka misses the point that the problem in The Trial is to do with the particular use of information, not its collection or processing or even its use in non-Kafkaesque ways. In short, a muddled and question-begging essay that does not even begin to address the 'nothing to hide' argument, but instead attacks its premises from flimsy, unjustified premises of his own invention. --nr



Some choice quotes from this Rolling Stone [article about China's "Golden Shield"]

"The big picture," Zhang tells me in his office at the factory, "is integration." That means linking cameras with other forms of surveillance: the Internet, phones, facial-recognition software and GPS monitoring.

This is how this Golden Shield will work: Chinese citizens will be watched around the clock through networked CCTV cameras and remote monitoring of computers. They will be listened to on their phone calls, monitored by digital voice-recognition technologies. Their Internet access will be aggressively limited through the country's notorious system of online controls known as the "Great Firewall." Their movements will be tracked through national ID cards with scannable computer chips and photos that are instantly uploaded to police databases and linked to their holder's personal data. This is the most important element of all: linking all these tools together in a massive, searchable database of names, photos, residency information, work history and biometric data. When Golden Shield is finished, there will be a photo in those databases for every person in China: 1.3 billion faces.

One of the first people to sound the alarm on China's upgraded police state was a British researcher named Greg Walton. In 2000, Walton was commissioned by the respected human-rights organization Rights & Democracy to investigate the ways in which Chinese security forces were harnessing the tools of the Information Age to curtail free speech and monitor political activists. The paper he produced was called "China's Golden Shield: Corporations and the Development of Surveillance Technology in the People's Republic of China." It exposed how big-name tech companies like Nortel and Cisco were helping the Chinese government to construct "a gigantic online database with an all-encompassing surveillance network incorporating speech and face recognition, closed-circuit television, smart cards, credit records and Internet surveillance technologies."

DR does not like the sound of this.  Throw in the web of trust aspect of PrivacyMatters/UnforgeableIdCards and voice stress recognition on the sort of surveilance cameras that have audio pickups and you've got the makings of a very comprehensive state control mechanism.  In fact, throw in getting rid of cash, so ALL transactions become either grey-market barter or trackable and recorded....
Update 2014.  The America army has now implemented this in Afghanistan - [Biometric Warfare] --DR

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