Right to privacy under collective omniscience? PART I

8 Jul

I. Guest Post by Greg Astill

If all information was publicly accessible, is there a need for privacy? I see the greatest argument in favor of privacy centered on the ability of the person with the monopoly on information to use that information for coercion: such as the government framing innocent but individuals who oppose it or the rich companies (who can afford to buy compromising information) gaining advantage over rivals. But if all information, everything everyone did and said, were publicly available there would be no coercion because anyone would be able to see attempts at coercion and be able to defy them. When I use the phrase all information, I mean everything anyone ever did and said, every place they ever went, and every second of their day was accounted for, recorded, and available for review. Under these conditions, there could be no blackmail, because there would be no hidden information. There could be no false testimony, lying, backstabbing, underhandedness, unjust imprisonment, or spying even.

Now whether or not omniscience is possible, is another question, but if it were possible, I think there would be no need for the right to privacy. Furthermore, if near-omniscience is possible, it may even be more important to preserve personal liberty by denying privacy. I believe we are approaching some rudimentary level of collective omniscience. There are no bounds on technological advancement, and I believe that technology will continue to grant humans the ability to manage information, only in greater quantities and in more easily accessible formats.

Humanity has already become incredibly adept at gathering, sorting through, and storing information. We have photographic satellites, GPS in our phones and cars, video cameras everywhere we go, personal and private details recorded in emails and other places online. As far as governments go, we all pretty much understand that if they wanted to find out something about us, they could. We just hope they won’t have any motivation to. With the advancements in technology that can break down private barriers as well as technology that can sort through all of the information, those concerned with government oversight have fought for stronger laws on privacy. But laws won’t really solve the problem as technologies improve. The easier information gathering becomes, the stronger the laws will have to be. An organization capable of enforcing the more stringent privacy laws (protecting against easier methods to pry) would also need to exist, which would necessarily have to be capable of breaking those laws itself. All that will protect individuals from coercion by a stronger power with greater access to information, will be the law, and the stronger power will have greater influence over the law meant to protect the individual.

Beyond these coercion arguments, my question remains, do I really have a right to privacy? If so, there will have to be some sort of government agency enforcing this. One could argue that there is no inherent right to privacy, and with the advancement of technology, the convenience of privacy will only become more costly to enforce. I say convenience because if we set aside the propensity of using secret information for coercion, the next argument is one should be able to filter what information others know. “Other people have no right to know what I do in the privacy of my own home,” one might declare. Is that really a personal right? Looking at it like John Locke would, in the state of nature you have the right to privacy to the extent that you can escape the sight and hearing of another, or threaten them to avoid you.

As far as the negative consequences of losing “the right to privacy”, do they prove this right?

1. My neighbors, friends, family, coworkers, and everyone would know my moral shortcomings (or what they consider moral shortcomings) and judge me unfairly. Unless there was some stark divide between the morally upright and the morally destitute, a person would be hard pressed to pass moral judgment with their own past mistakes out in the open. This would encourage a more honest engagement between individuals, and would break down social stigmas.

2. People would spy on me. Individuals would have a strong incentive not to spy, because their actions would be recorded and available for anyone to review. Peeping toms would be immediately recognized and they would be socially ostracized.

3. Companies would harass me. Advertisements would actually become applicable and entertaining. Quality of products would increase and specialty markets would be able to connect with individuals who value their products. An individual’s consumption history would be available for review by any company, and only products that please or will please the individual will be marketed to them.

4. I just don’t want others to have access to my private life. One doesn’t have the right to stop someone on the street from looking at them. If technology allows someone to look inside your house without permission, the law would have to limit the use of the technology, which would be like limiting where someone is allowed to look. Both would be immensely difficult to enforce.

Most people have already accepted the government’s assertion that there are instances where others have a right to look into their private lives without permission (search warrant, terrorist watching, military intelligence), but they accept on faith that these groups given the special right to peek will only do so when necessary. There is no way to confirm or refute this except by what the group itself says, which is itself impossible to confirm. Thus, protection against abuses of this power lies within the moral character of the organization and nothing more. If everyone has the right to pry, they will be able to self regulate on what is socially appropriate and inappropriate, and there will be no danger of someone using information for coercion (as there currently is and will only continue to become more pressing).

II. Schwartz Response

Thanks Greg for this interesting post. I think you are underestimating the benefits of privacy and how much we enjoy it. While this is a long and thoughtful argument I see it much more as the eventual banning of privacy, something I don’t think any free person wants.

For brevity’s sake I am only critiquing the list at the end of your argument.

1. I do not want my neighbors and friends and especially my family knowing what I do, I actually go to great lengths to hide much of my activities from them. Being under 21 it is illegal for me to drink and I am sure I break other laws that would be seen as irresponsible in the eyes of my folks. I love my friends, but it would be awkward if they knew everything about me, my mistakes and desires, plus imagine if I was an introvert like my roommates, they would hate the this! Lastly, when trying to meet new people it is great to have a fresh start when you know nothing about them and visa versa.

2. Honestly Greg no one has spied on me, at least not to my own knowledge. While people trying to steal my info is a problem, if you made it public, hackers and phishers could easily send fake emails, log into my computer, steal my bank accounts, use my info to make fake accounts or even to commit crimes. I would rather fight hard to keep most of my info private. Furthermore, if I am not mistaken you can find some info on public record, some is easily purchased, and even a little is just on websites offering info about people. If you are willing to pay a little you can get everything on someone, so no one even has to physically spy on me.

3. There is not guarantee that advertisers will actually act on this info and then even if they did, that it would make a perfect jon or greg product. Anyway just check your email, I am sure on the side there is some products or maybe on facebook that reflect you the user and then the site generates adverts that reflect this.

4. Does anyone have the right to info about my life? You may not think that I have the right to privacy, but you certainly don’t have the opposite – the right to all info about me. I am fine with laws banning you from secretly placing cameras and microphones in my house, wiretapping is bad, and no one should know what I do with all my time because society does not approve of all behavior. If I have a weird religion, like Islam in the US, I can be seen as a terrorist based on my personal choices. Or if I choose to be gay, or liberal, or I do drugs and my society does not approve of this traits or actions then I hide them.

5. MY ADDITION – what is the cost of finding everyone’s info and storing it? Hundreds of billions, if not trillions, what would be imaginary money because we are still in huge debt. Furthermore, when we get those cool cameras that see through walls, we will develop more privacy technology, so there is competition in these kinds of tech.

Your world might have some advantages – no blackmail or coercion and maybe even a world without crime, but at a cost of much of our freedom, I would have to restrain what I said and did just not to be penalized by the world.

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