Down With Privacy, Up With The Panopticon And Sousveillance

I view privacy the same way I view intellectual property (or, more accurately, intellectual privilege, as Tom Bell dubs it): if it's worth keeping private, people will generally find a way to keep it that way, and that's great. In most cases, however, information--both personal and commercial--isn't worth keeping private, so it won't be. We are biased towards the status quo and have a hard time imagining alternate scenarios in which what most of us currently consider private matters are no longer so, and what most of us consider viable business models for the production and dissemination of information make about as much sense as copyrighting new words like w00t.

Sexual mores of modesty provide a good framework for thinking about this: a woman living in, say, 19th century Europe or present day Saudi Arabia might be mortified to go out in public with her hair uncovered, naked elbows, shoulders, or knees displayed to the public. But put that same women in a culture in which these public displays are as commonplace and pedestrian as watching grass grow, and the shame is gone. People aren't going to ogle that which they see constantly, everyday, so there just isn't any reason to be embarrassed about it.

To use another contemporary analogy, this is the same logic behind nonconsensual "outing" in the gay community. The desire to stay in the closet presents the gay community with a prisoner's dilemma: it may be perfectly rational for an individual gay person to keep his or her sexual identity private, so as not to risk public censure, loss of career opportunities, and distancing from friends and family. But if every gay person went public with their homosexuality, there would be much less for each individual gay person to fear: society would simply adjust (as it already has to a great extent) and come to accept the normalcy of the phenomenon, by virtue of the fact that each and every member of society has so many friends and knows so many acquaintances who are both normal, respectable, and gay. By hiding in the closet, the gay individual is fueling his or her own greatest fears, as the public then associates homosexuality with only the extreme outsiders, who tend not to be as normal or respectable as the average. The same, of course, is true with responsible drug users (in contrast to irresponsible drug abusers) and libertarian anarchists (long-time readers of this blog may remember my little adventure in trying to out a famous libertarian of his anarchism).

When I think about the kinds of things people wish to keep private, I can usually sort them into one of two categories: (a) activities that they truly should be ashamed of, such as aggression, dishonesty, and hypocrisy, for which a lessening of privacy would be beneficial in creating greater incentives for good behavior, and (b) activities that are shameful merely by virtue of the public goods problem mentioned above, and would cease to be shameful as soon as everyone realized everything about everyone else.

The issue of insurance might seem to be an exception to this dichotomy. A loss of privacy could mean loss of insurable claims, so people value keeping, say, genetic medical information private from insurance company eyes, and yet this sort of privacy matches neither (a) nor (b).

Insurance is predicated on a lack of knowledge. We purchase insurance because neither we nor the seller knows what is in store for us individually. But the insurer is better able to manage risk by pooling together many policy holders, thereby spreading out the risk to just slightly less than the premium paid by each member. Once we introduce something like genetic testing into the mix, however, it makes no sense to claim to want to keep the results private from insurance companies, because this would completely destroy the very purpose behind insurance, through the problem of adverse selection. The presence of asymmetric information, whether actual as in the case of private genetic testing, or virtual as in the case of government fiat forcing insurance companies to treat all policy holders equally regardless of relevant individual characteristics, weakens the rational for insurance, increases the cost of individual policies across the board, reduces the profit margins and thus the incentives for companies to enter and remain in the insurance market, and ultimately destroys insurance companies qua insurance companies and instead turns them into pre-payment programs for certainties, not risks, like paying for car "insurance" that covers all gasoline refills, or medical "insurance" that pays for regularly scheduled checkups.

So loss of privacy of genetic information in this context is a good thing, so long as we accept that knowledge of genetic information at all is a good thing. Perhaps it isn't. Perhaps whatever benefits might accrue from early knowledge of genetic predispositions to certain diseases are outweighed by the loss of being able to insure those claims. But if that's the case, the objection shouldn't be made on privacy grounds, but on the existence of genetic information in the first place.

Despite this uncertainty, I'm pretty confident that the benefits of greater information will outweigh the risks. To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined private life is not worth living. Two cheers for the Panopticon and its counterpart, sousveillance.

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You make a convincing

You make a convincing utilitarian case against privacy. I agree with you and there is also a moral case to be made. Many libertarians fall into the "modal libertarian" trap. To some, the expression has become synonymous with "hippie libertarian", libertarianism as a mode of life etc. However, the real meaning of "modal libertarian" is someone who emphazises libertarian values over property rights.

For example, some will oppose company mandated drug tests (oppose as: 'they should be prevented to do this'), some will oppose abortion on the ground that libertarianism values life, some will oppose employment discrimination etc. And there is the typical modal libertarian who values "privacy".

Some of those have called for a "right to be forgotten". This insane concept means that if someone collects information on you, somehow that information is yours and you should have the right to demand that he forgets this information. This pseudo-libertarians are really demanding a right over other people's mind. It is perfectly normal and acceptable to ask for confidentiality or a right to destroy certain archives when one divulges personal information, but a generic right to make people forget about you is lunatic. Those who require it generally have in mind big companies, but if such a right exist there is no reason it shouldn't affect individuals, if I learn something about yo, can you put a bullet through my brains to make me forget it? Ahhh no will claim the modal libertarian, because life is more valuable than privacy.

Want to see what kind of confusion I am talking about: http://www.aclu.org/pizza/
This is ACLU... *shivers*

I want my insurer to talk to my pizza delivery service, I want my pizza delivery service to charge me based on the most up to date criminal information on my neighboorhood. Come google, come, take my personal info and plug me to the semantic web. There is no right to privacy, there is a right to take actions to refrain from divulging information to other people.

Don't agree

I don't buy Tom Bell's economic justification for copyright, so I'm not going to buy his other arguments. Intellectual property rights don't exist merely on the economically utilitarian grounds of spurring production. They exist because people own the fruits of their own labor until and unless they trade them away or discard them. I've probably already discussed my position on patents and copyright here. I believe that a Kinsella style approach is totally wrong. I don't believing in the existence of ideals but only their instantiations. I therefore believe that patents should protect those instantiations, and not ideals. In this sense my conception is not really about intellectual property rights but physical property rights. I protect the physical instances.

Enough on that. Now about privacy. You're comfortable with all the rummys knowing where you keep your booze?  Do rummies have the right to trespass in order to enforce their right to know where your booze is?

  Intellectual property

 

Intellectual property rights don't exist merely on the economically
utilitarian grounds of spurring production. They exist because people
own the fruits of their own labor until and unless they trade them away
or discard them.

 

So would you therefore say there is no justification for putting time-limits on certain forms of intellectual property? There is no statute of limitations or time limits on physical property ownership; why should there be time limits on intellectual property ownership?

 

Do rummies have the right to trespass in order to enforce
their right to know where your booze is?

 

Of course not. (Though this raises the extremely complex question of what constitutes trespass in a world with advanced technologies that enable us to see the contents of a person's home without the viewer having to physically be inside the home.)

While I'm not a big fan of "rights talk" in general, I think it's especially unhelpful when talking about intellectual property and privacy. No one has a "right" to privacy, just as no one has a "right" to know where their neighbors keep their booze. But if people can successfully protect their privacy without excessive cost and without violating whatever legal rules have arisen in the current system in which they live, and so too, if people can successfully discover where their neighbors keep their booze without excessive cost and without violating whatever legal rules have arisen in the current system in which they live, I say good for both of them.

 

IP and rights

"So would you therefore say there is no justification for putting time-limits on certain forms of intellectual property?"

Yes. But only the valid forms, and I would abolish other forms. I don't think if two people independently invent something that one can validly restrict the other.

"No one has a "right" to privacy, just as no one has a "right" to know where their neighbors keep their booze."

There are at least two meanings to the word right. I wasn't using the word "right" in the way I find it useful. I was using it in the way people who don't respect natural rights would use it. I was talking about what I'll label here as "de jure rights". That is a governmentally granted right. Obviously there is no natural right to know where people keep your booze.

However, once you get into the realm of using dubious economic or utilitarian theories to decide what should be legal or not you can certainly get to a de jure right to know what your neighbor is doing. You were making the argument that people keep things secret for two reasons, and that maybe it was better if we knew. On a utilitarian basis if it's better for society then why not make a law stating that you can't have such secrets. Certainly booze drinking is something we'd want to know about in such a case and it would be quite important to know exactly what you were up to in that case. So we would need to be able to get info on how much booze you've bought, what your current inventory is, where you store it (is it safe from the kids), and all sorts of other info. That is, for society to fully benefit from such information then we need it.

If from a utilitarian point of view the information is valuable for society to have (or certain individuals to have to the benefit of society) and it costs less to force people to provide such information than it would be to leave it up to someone else to divine it then I don't see how you can argue on a utilitarian basis. Seems to me that since utilitarianism is trying to be a moral system, it would be a moral right to know where the booze is.

Of course I find utiliarianism less than useless because the kinds of measurements you are trying to make are pretty much impossible.

Of course this whole idea flounders for other reasons. As Constant points out there aren't just two reasons for keeping secrets.

I also think I could make a good case that there is a "right to privacy". It flowing naturally out of human nature. In my thinking it arises in the same way that property rights would. I would make the same kinds of arguments I would for the right to take a chunk of earth and call it "mine". It rests upon the notion of a rational actors, self interested beings, reciprocity, and the like.

<i>“While I'm not a big fan of "rights talk"
in general, I think it's especially unhelpful when talking about intellectual
property and privacy.”</i>

I think it's a area rife with the logical fallacy called equivocation.   People mistake de jure rights for natural rights.  Unfortunately the downside to coining a new term is not worth the loss of traditional appeal, unfamiliarity and the like.   Besides even if a new term was coined there is no reason why opponents couldn't start misusing it also.   They've done that with the terms libertarian as in left-libertarian or civil-libertarian, and also with the terms liberal, equality, etc.   In some cases there was no effort required since the terms already had alternate meanings that were not intended in the original theory.    

I do believe I have the right to privacy, and that doesn't mean if I pose for playboy I can get the issue banned from the shelves if I have second thoughts.    I must take reasonable care to keep my private information private.

People can make mistakes so we have to keep that aspect of human nature into account.   We are not perfect and so our concept of rights must take that into account.   A girls top popping off after going down a water slide is accidental in nature.   I don't see how she could argue that your brain should be wiped over the incident but certainly if you snapped a picture with your camera and posted it on the internet I can see that being a violation.    In the same way that if I accidentally drop a piece of personal property it is not the same as putting it on the curb.    

Private information - secrets

Privacy is what? Secrets, right? Stuff I know that you don't know. For example, my passwords.

When I think about the kinds of things people wish to keep private, I
can usually sort them into one of two categories: (a) activities that
they truly should be ashamed of, such as aggression, dishonesty, and
hypocrisy, for which a lessening of privacy would be beneficial in
creating greater incentives for good behavior, and (b) activities that
are shameful merely by virtue of the public goods problem mentioned
above, and would cease to be shameful as soon as everyone realized
everything about everyone else.

Passwords are neither rightly nor wrongly shameful. Secrecy is one of the tools that we employ to protect ourselves against predators. Passwords, combinations, the shape of a key, the location of buried treasure.

Secrets protect what is legitimately ours; were our secrets given up, we would be made vulnerable to predators.

On the matter of oppression, lack of privacy could go both ways. It is often said that there are no secrets in a small town, and it is also often said that small towns are socially more constraining than large cities. So in a sense the experiment has already been done, and the result is that loss of secrets is associated with a more oppressive social environment.

Passwords are neither

Passwords are neither rightly nor wrongly shameful.

Point taken.

So in a sense the experiment has already been done, and the result is
that loss of secrets is associated with a more oppressive social
environment.

True, but there are benefits as well. Because everyone knows one another, there is less of a need for explicit political/coercive regulation. I'm not going to shoplift from the corner store because the storekeeper, all the customers, and everyone in town knows me intimately; I couldn't likely get away with it, and the social consequences of getting caught are severe. Similarly, it is much easier to solve free-rider public goods problems in this kind of environment without resorting to political, coercive solutions, because everyone knows when anyone else is shirking their communal responsibilities.

I'm tired of this argument against privacy


When I think about the kinds of things people wish to keep private, I
can usually sort them into one of two categories: (a) activities that
they truly should be ashamed of, such as aggression, dishonesty, and
hypocrisy, for which a lessening of privacy would be beneficial in
creating greater incentives for good behavior, and (b) activities that
are shameful merely by virtue of the public goods problem mentioned
above, and would cease to be shameful as soon as everyone realized
everything about everyone else.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, well - somewhat right...

There are a lot of things, though, that people do not want others to know simply because it's none of their business. My religion (or lack thereof), my reading habits, my waist size, my shoe size, my color preference for my bed spread, etc. are all things I may not want the entire human race to know, but there is nothing shameful or illegal about any of it. It's simply none of your business and therefore is private. The continuing argument of people wanting privacy simply because they have something they want to hide is missing the point that I want privacy because there are somethings I don't want to share. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Well, sure, Lee, there is

Well, sure, Lee, there is nothing wrong with wanting to keep trivial personal information private. But it's a silly preference in most of the cases you mentioned, and I don't think most people care enough about those sorts of things to be willing to put their money where their mouth is and actually pay a significant cost to keep those things private. When given the choice between convenience and trivial privacy, most of us seem to choose convenience, and there's nothing wrong with that choice either.

awesome read

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