Friday, June 27, 2003

Thoughts on privacy

In commemoration of Orwell's 100th birthday, Neuromancer author William Gibson had an op-ed piece in Wednesday's New York Times, in which he discussed Orwell's vision, and how it was influenced by its time. In particular, Gibson believes that Orwell's vision was influenced by the broadcast nature of the media at the time: radio and the nascent invention of television were highly centralised. The surveillance scheme (and the totalitarian states) envisioned in 1984 were centralised in the same way, from some giant central security apparatus. Gibson believes that today's world, and the world of the future, is different. Greater surveillance will be mixed with much greater freedom of information. People with access to all this new information will consist of many non-state as well as state actors. We will live in a world with much less privacy, but not necessarily much less freedom. Surveillance states without this fancy new technology were pretty effective, and still are pretty effective in places (from North Korea to Burma to Cuba) where old technological paradigms still apply. Would these states have been more oppressive if the people runing them had PCs? It's hard to say. Would the presence of PCs in the security apparatus in East Germany rather than mountains of paper records have prevented the end of European communism? It's doubtful. Changing surveillance technology is taking us somewhere new, it may be that the vision of Orwell provides a good guide as to what it is.

After quickly observing that Gibson sounds rather like Brian Micklethwait, I will observe that Gibson is at least partly right. The greater freedom of information that results from many to many communications networks changes things dramatically. We saw glimpses of this in the 1980s with the invention of the fax machine, which more or less removed the mass media's ability to bury a story that the people were not supposed to know about. (The key story was something tawdry: a transcipt allegedly of the Prince of Wales talking to his mistress). This reached every office in London seemingly in minutes. The media and hence the courts could no longer supress things like that. With the invention of e-mail and SMS text messaging, such communications became more ubiquitous, and no longer tied to the home or office.

We are suddenly in a world where a great deal of information is being collected on us and transmitted to other places, and yet at the same time, we are collecting a lot of information on ourselves, and transmitting it voluntarily, and to some extent this controls the flow. Much of this information is and will continue to be cultural rather than political in content. Like Brian, I am fascinated by this phenomenon, which can also be for the good. Due largely to the use of SMS messaging, the Chinese government this year completely failed to keep information secret about the spread of the SARS virus in China. People throughout the country knew far more about what was going on than the government wanted them to know. The Chinese government now seems to know that it cannot keep things secret like this any more, and as today's Economist discusses, the consequences could be profound.

I agree with Gibson that things are less Orwellian, but that doesn't necessarily mean things are good. More information is being collected. I agree that this can't be avoided. The questions are how is it going to be collected, who is going to be collecting it, how may it be used. Virtually everywhere government continues to grow in size, and in many places government surveillance systems and databases of information become larger, and governments continue to use the threat of terrorism and the simple fact of the existence of the new technology to expand their powers and the scope of such systems. While I think the simultaneous new openness of information increases the potential for these systems to be embarrassed by other parties, the potential for misuse of such information remains enormous. The ability of incorrect information to ruin people's lives and for bureacrats to annoy and harrass the lives of ordinary people is also multiplied dramatically by the new technology.

So what do we do? I think we have to acknowledge that while technology has changed, human nature fundamentally hasn't. Over the last 1000 years, an entire legal system and system of rights has evolved to protect people from intrusive government and other intrusive parties. This is why we have accountability to courts and elected officials. This is why we have presumption of innocence. This is why nobody can search my home without a warrant. It isn't good enough to say that technology has changed, and therefore these rights are no longer relevant and must be removed, because those things about human nature that made these protections necessary in the first place have not changed, and this is something we still need to be protected from. In fact we need to see how they can be extended into the digital world. The alternative is to find out in a few years that great miscarriages of justice have occurred due to the lack of them, and we then have to either resign ourselves to living in a world where great miscarriages of justice occur, or establish a new set of protections from scratch.

And the fact is a great many politicians, policemen and bureacrats want to take these protections away. The danger is in some ways not so much the new technology itself, as the fact that it puts everything in flux. Those people who have always wanted ID cards, the ability to search houses without warrants, the ability to listen to private conversations and such have an excuse to start talking about these issues again and to argue that the issues are not settled. And the new technology provides a tremendous amount of jargon with which these same old proposals can be worded to make them sound like they are not the same after all. Which is why it is important for us to make it clear when they are.

Crossposted to The White Rose

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