Privacy is something that has become a front burner topic for everyone, because every day we are treated to stories about how corporations are spying on us. They harvest information from our daily routines, put it into databases and then use it to push ads on us wherever we turn. They are now inserting surveillance devices in our homes to listen in on us as we go about our daily routines. Of course, no one knows how much is done with government blessing and cooperation, but we know it is there.
Of course, the fact that everyone is worried about this issue means the politicians never speak of it. The old Joe Sobran line was that America is a country where the political parties are significantly to the Left of their voters. Today, when Left and Right are meaningless artifacts from a bygone era, both parties simply make sure to never address the concerns of the people. While Democrats are analyzing spectral evidence for signs of Russian gremlins, the GOP is thanking you for not smoking.
Even though it seems that the unwanted gaze is upon us everywhere, we are just at the start of a new problem. In the pre-industrial age, the privacy concern was the king’s men rummaging through your possessions or intercepting your courier. For most people this was never going to be a concern. In the industrial age, the state expanded to the point where everyone could be exposed to a government process. The concern then was your rights within the process. How much did you have to reveal to them?
In the technological age, where the lines between the state and the global technology companies are blurred, we have very different problems. These are the sorts of problems classical liberals, so beloved by libertarians and conservatives, never contemplated. It’s why civic nationalism sounds so ridiculous when debating what to do about these tech firms controlling our civil discourse. For example, this blog is blocked by corporate firewall makers, which are private companies doing the bidding of the political class.
Think about this. Police departments are now using services like Ancestory.com to help solve cold cases. They submit DNA evidence to the service and the service reports back members who have some connection. You committed the perfect crime in 1982, but left behind some DNA at the crime scene. Your cousin decides to trace her (it’s always a her in these cases) ancestry using a DNA service. All of a sudden you have cops at your door asking you about your whereabouts 40 years ago.
It’s easy to shrug this off as the person suddenly tangled in this new technological surveillance web is a criminal. We all want to see justice done. But, think about the implications of this new world. All of us now have a permanent record that is increasingly open to examination by unofficial agents of the state. How long before some tech company gets into the business of solving crimes? How long before the cops start purchasing their services on-line just like they are doing with ancestry?
There is another side to this. The tech companies can also spy on the state, by accessing the records of people working in the state. Every government has to keep secrets in order to function. It is why every modern society has developed processes for determining what can be revealed and what can be concealed by government. There are processes the public and government must follow and they are administered by the courts. What happens when the tech giants can bypass all of this?
Think of another problem. Before the media was completely owned by the government, private media operations would publish government secrets they thought the public had a right to see. It sounds crazy, but it used to happen. The courts carved out exceptions to permit this, basically putting the burden of keeping secrets on the state. Now, with help from technology, the state can fight back and go after the handful of independent media people snooping around government. This story will be interesting.
There are two problems we face in the technological age that are new. One is how to place hard limits on the synopticon. This unwanted stare called the surveillance state that is now on all of us will have to be blinded, unless there are hard limits on where anyone can peer into the lives of the people. In other words, it is no longer about the state and the citizens’ right to privacy. It is about society and the human right to a private space, free of the unwanted gaze. We will need absolute zones of privacy.
The other problem is how to fashion punishments that are so terrifying that they change behavior. What’s happened within these massive technology firms is the evolution of a culture where everyone sees themselves as a member of a clerisy, guarding the public from themselves. These decisions to ban books and censor speech are not made at the top, but in the middle, by functionaries doing what they assume is their duty. Either the firms are destroyed and the people chased off or we change the culture in them.
One way to change the culture is to attach liability to violating the safe zones. The reason every company in America spends money proving they are not racist is there are serious liabilities that come with doing otherwise. Something similar must happen with privacy. Companies need to be as berserk about not looking where they are prohibited from looking, as they are about conforming to current morality on race. Otherwise, the solution is to let a million flowers bloom in Silicon Valley.
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