Don\'t I own the jiggling of my electrons?

In my recent post on privacy, provocatively title Blackmail and Goat-Fucking, I was reminded during the comments of an old radio scanner maxim:

Any radio waves that pass through my body, I'll listen to if I want.

This has always seemed eminently reasonable to me. How the hell can it be anyone else's business whether I pay attention to the jiggling of my electrons? It was on this basis that I argued with my dad that listening in to cordless and cell phone calls was moral, he conceded the point but still felt that it was rude. Being a teenager at the time, that argument held zero sway with me (as opposed to now, when it would hold several times that much :wink:).

A similar concept holds with the question of videotaping people. If you've carelessly let photons bounce off you and towards me, I don't see why I have any obligations not to capture them, draw moustaches on them, post them to the internet, or whatever. Why should you own every (or any) collection of bits that looks like you? If I fraudulently alter the image and claim it as truth, that seems wrong, but other than that, I see no rights for the filmee.

On the other hand, while I disagreed with Jim's argument about implied contract not to film at a party, it now occurs to me that a different argument has more merit: namely deception. That is, if I hide cameras at my party (or in my hotel), I can see that a person might argue that the natural expectation is not to be filmed, it didn't look like they were being filmed, I specifically hid the cameras from them knowing they didn't want to be filmed, and so I am in some sense defrauding them.

There is some merit in that, but how does it affect my cordless phone example? You could argue that people's natural expectation is not to be eavesdropped on, and they didn't know they were being listened to. But note that there is no deception here - its not that I am hiding my eavesdropping, its that listening to radio signals is a naturally hidden activity. And not only am I not hiding my actions but I can't help but feel that anyone who broadcasts their conversations over the airwaves is pretty foolish if they think no one is going to listen.

One really tricky part of all this expectation-based moral reasoning is how technological changes constantly alter expectations. If some tiny, cheap recorder becomes available, with automatic transcripting into your computers searchable data, expecting your conversations to go unrecorded is no longer reasonable. So from this viewpoint, the belief that analog cellular phone users can expect privacy is an inappropriate extension of land-line intuition.

And this change of laws when technology changes makes sense in a consequentalist fashion too. The cost of enforcing a restriction on physically possible information gathering depends on how easy that gathering is. It's going to be very hard to stop people from listening to cellphone calls - so maybe it's not worth trying. Right now we can assume that conversations in your house are private, but when we can buy some black box in Hong Kong for 800 yuan that can hear conversations 3 houses down, we're going to need to drop that assumption to stay in sync with the real world.

Which is difficult, because laws tend to change much more slowly than technology, and have more inertia...

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Sony IR cameras would allow,

Sony IR cameras would allow, by using night-vision features in the day-time combined with an additional lens, taking video through people’s clothing.

Oh great, tell Patri that....

Isn't the easy technical

Isn't the easy technical solution to encrypt cell phone calls?

Just to add some other

Just to add some other technologies to the mix:

Thermal imaging, which allows the observation of the movement of people within their homes from outside its walls (or the detection of a closet full of grow-lamps). (Kyllo v. U.S., 2001, ruled that warrantless use of thermal imaging violates the 4th Amendment.)

Sony IR cameras would allow, by using night-vision features in the day-time combined with an additional lens, taking video through people's clothing.

Correction, it's a Sony

Correction, it's a Sony camera with night-vision mode, and an IR-pass filter. There are now "X-ray specs" (no actual X-rays involved) that work better than the little joke ones that used to be offered in the backs of comic books:

The edge-case here would

The edge-case here would seem to be a person with a "photographic memory." If I go to your party, and unbeknownst to me there is a person with such a good memory there, have I been recorded without my knowledge or consent? What if, instead of a naturally unnatural memory, this person has a VCR hooked up to his optic nerve? Or just to a camera hidden in his glasses? At what point on this continuum does one draw the privacy line?

The "reasonable expectation" enshrined in law is a convenient kludge to find a bright line (however arbitrary) in this morass. Absent another bright line -- "no privacy" or "shoot everyone with photographic memory" probably won't appeal to most people -- it's the best kludge we have.

It's another situation in

It's another situation in which cultural norms were set in a period when information costs were high. Today info costs are lower and dropping, and we haven't adjusted our values yet to cope. Law follows after.

Or does one grant the use of

Or does one grant the use of pictures if one goes to a party. There are many venues that state that if you attend an event there you grant the venue and the performers the right to use your image in any way they wish.