Right to privacy under collective omniscience? Part II: A Response

10 Jul

Continued from Greg Astill’s Post

III. A response from Mr.B:

There are a few questions we need to consider about the structure of this hypothetical, perfect information (PI) society. How do we observe what others are doing? Is there some window that we must use or can we just think and that will give us some way to look into the lives of others? Does everyone have access to use this observational tool at the same time? Does the time it takes to observe consume actual time in our lives or do we get the information instantaneously? How quickly can I get new information – can I watch people while they are doing something currently? Can I look into their thoughts and desires? How much privacy do I actually have/lose?

Somewhat fortuitously, these questions don’t really need to be answered. They simply define the context of a hypothetical scenario – but they are useful because they help us illustrate a problem. If I cannot get information instantaneously and if I cannot see into the minds of others, many of our social institutions can remain. Lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering are more difficult to get away with, but perhaps only slightly more difficult to do (“Gee, Janice sure is buying a lot of bullets, perhaps I should keep an eye on her to make sure she doesn’t go postal”). The fact that it takes time to acquire information and sort through information will always make this the case. It is unavoidable. Prosecuting criminals and solving civil disputes would become easier, but the law would certainly still have a function. I’m not convinced coercion would go away. It would either (or both) become more subtle and insidious or overt and dangerous. People who broke the law and didn’t want to have to pay the consequences would have to do a lot more fighting to not get caught. This IP society would help effectively identify who is the best at performing a task (even if it is crime).

One response that we might expect is that even though people could use this power for nefarious means, most use would be relatively mundane. I don’t have the time to watch all of my neighbors and investigate their lives – I do still have my own life to live. There would be people who would outright refuse to use the technology to invade a person’s private life. What this would imply, however, is that a person only had a right to privacy if there wasn’t some pressing need to ignore that privacy (there is a murder in a nearby house and suddenly you are put under massive scrutiny).

Before I give my interpretation of the scenarios presented, I want to say something about this “collective omniscience” idea. We have it. It exists (at least in a sense). Through the price mechanism, we are able to relay information about our personal lives and our wants and circumstances to other people in a way that they can interpret. It is not perfect by any means, but it is better than any piece of technology (up to now and for a long while). There are fundamental knowledge problems that can never be overcome by technology (and might not be overcome even in the PI society – depending on the particulars of its structure). For more on this I defer you to F. A. Hayek and his paper “The Use of Knowledge in Society”: http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/hykKnw1.html.

You suggest that if we do still have a right to privacy, then there must be some governmental agency to enforce this. Why couldn’t a social order form that protects the right to privacy? Historically, many legal bodies and civil court systems have formed without the help of government.

1. Your close contacts (indeed everyone!) would know of your moral shortcomings and judge you unfairly. This does not mean that most people could not pass more judgment on others without a huge moral divide. It means that people would be more considerate of the morality of their actions knowing that they could be judged later and would behave more morally. Moreover, we would be more accepting of occasional moral missteps – understanding that they happen to everyone (and we could prove it). Others would judge you more fairly, not less.

2. Spying would be more common temporarily perhaps. But we should take time to think about potential mechanisms that make it more difficult for the spies to spy. (Think multiple instantaneous DNA tests to get into your bank account). Making cars through competition has made them more difficult to steal (not less) because firms are putting in extra protection features that circumvent the abilities of the thief. The issue of peeping Toms brings up another question about this society: how are searches for information done (do I look by place, time, person, or some other metric)?

3. Companies would certainly harass you less. If you are being harassed all of the time, do you think any companies would stand to profit from your customership because they didn’t harass you? It could be quite effective for them to use this vision to see how much you might value a product and then they could price you as highly as you’d be willing to go. The problem for them though is that you can see their costs of production and profits and then adjust your willingness to pay more accordingly. In this sector, there would be only gains from increasing knowledge in this way.

4. Jon makes an excellent point on this one. Although I think, again, that given more information about people’s lives, we would reevaluate our own values and principles. If more homophobes found out that they had gay friends, it might help change their views (moreover, if they could see gays can have happy, loving, monogamous relationships and can raise children, perhaps gay marriage and adoption wouldn’t be such a problem).

5. The costs are not only high from a resource perspective, but, as Hayek illustrates, some of them are insurmountable.

Your PI society gets at some very good questions about whether or not we have a ‘right’ to privacy? And what are the conditions of society that make having privacy (or the right to privacy) possible and /or necessary?

I can’t say whether we have a right to privacy with a lot of strength in my beliefs. I’m starting to be more of an ethical intuitionist (meaning that I think we can understand moral principles based on our intuitions – we have a “moral sense” if you will). So with respect to privacy, given that invasions of privacy today cause (often undue) harm on others, it doesn’t seem right or justifiable to invade their lives for our own wants. In a perfect information society that might change, but fortunately (or unfortunately), we will never live in that society.

Hayek, The Use of Knowledge in Society | Library of Economics and Liberty


What is the problem we wish to solve when we try to construct a rational economic order? On certain familiar assumptions the answer is simple enough. If we possess all the relevant information, if we can start out from a given system of preferences, and if we command complete knowledge of available …

IV. Response from Greg Astill:

The structure I was envisioning would be something like an indexed and completely searchable video/audio/location archive. No one would have access to thoughts in this scenario, as I see omniscience to external events happening before omniscience extending to the conscious minds of all individuals. But under these assumptions, I think it would be possible to prove someone guilty of murder, stealing, and lying.

I ask the question in this way because I don’t see an explosion of documentation about individuals as unexpected in the future. G.B. has already built an extensive network of cameras, and the US has cameras up all over schools, businesses, and public buildings–only they haven’t been linked up like G.B.’s. As cameras become cheaper and more powerful, I think it’s very possible that cameras could record a great majority of what we do. If video cameras were linked in with GPS or RFID chips, you would be able to identify the individual in every video and conversely find the video of every individual according to where they were at what time. If this seems unfeasible for a country, then consider a city. Even if you couldn’t get video footage of every moment in every location someone went, you would be able to get a great deal. I concede that this scenario may be a little far fetched but the amount of information we have stored and accessible today would seem far fetched to anyone from a couple of centuries prior.

So I thought what are the biggest arguments against having all information public knowledge? And the biggest one I came up with was the one that you also voiced Jon: I don’t want people to see what I do behind closed doors. But is that really a good enough reason? As far as you having to hide certain elements of your life to family and friends, I think there would actually be no need to do so under conditions of public access to all information. Let’s say your parents would find some of the things you do to be irresponsible. They would also find out that most of your peers are doing the exact same things and cut you some slack. You would also be able to look into their lives and see their imperfections, which would also lessen their ability to chastise you. Basically, it would cause everyone to interact with each other on a completely honest grounds, instead of both sides hiding embarrassing elements from the other. As for roommates, have you ever searched through their personal belongings or read their emails when they were out of the house? Probably not, because it’s mostly uninteresting, you have some level of respect for them, and there is a small chance you could get caught. Now what if you had a 100% chance you’d get caught? There would be hardly anyone that snoops.

As far as the price mechanism operating above individual consciousness, and there being barriers to action by a single decision maker, this completely accessible history would really only be applicable on an individual basis–you wouldn’t necessarily be able to use it to predict movements of society. You would just be able to account for things individuals said or did.

I think most biases like homophobia, racism, or religious intolerance come from ignorance, and although I’m sure some people would find some way to remain ignorant, it seems that having everything out in the open would lead to greater respect.


V. Final Response from Mr.B:

“As far as you having to hide certain elements of your life to family and friends, I think there would actually be no need to do so under conditions of public access to all information.”

This, in part, supposes that everyone has equal access to the information (and it’s necessary, then, that we establish ‘how’ people get this information). The problem we will always face with cameras and technology (for the most part) will be that it takes time for us to process and find the information and it is not always clear whether a particular piece of information is useful. With lots of cameras, you could potentially get a great deal of information on some people. However, you forgo the ability to get lots of information on others.

It seems likely that this society would be significantly better than the one we currently live in (although I think that looking into others lives would not be wholly accepted for a while because we take time to develop relationships). But if the knowledge is disproportionately slanted toward a few groups, namely governments, then we have a very big problem indeed.



One Response to “Right to privacy under collective omniscience? Part II: A Response”

  1. Spy Cameras July 10, 2010 at 8:21 pm #

    We collect and store statistics and other information about our visitors on an aggregated (collective) basis. Spy Cameras

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