Privacy and Secrets

Excerpts from discussions on Privacy
Mostly from GEnie's Public Forum, Category 27, Topic 7
Quotes are from several different people.

On-line Anonymity (from an e-mail discussion)

" Besides, even if no anonymity might make the world a better place, is it really the duty of government to force us all into a better place, even if we don't want to go? "

Some of us recognise a "better place" when we see it, and wouldn't have to be forced. Instead, we're forced into a worse place by those who are afraid of change. Theoretically, in our democratic system, the majority is never forced. But that's only theory. It seems to me the constitutional right to free speech was intended to refer to public speaking, by identified speakers.

"If people didn't WANT anonymity, there wouldn't be any. "

...by the people who don't want it. That doesn't solve any problems.

"As long as it doesn't harm anyone, what business is it of the government's?"

That's the key. Can you think of any action that doesn't affect others in many different ways, both good and bad? Of course infinite effects blend together so that eventually the results of any one action are unpredictable. I'm talking about results that are predictable. Therefore what you do is _always_ my/our business, and vice versa. "No man is an island. No man stands alone."

One who is confident of being anonymous can go on-line and send bomb threats and libelous statements about public figures and, hypothetically, no one can stop them. Not everyone has the good sense to ignore anonymous messages. Someone needs to be held responsible in order to prevent this from cascading. If not the author, then the sysops who allow anonymity.

" Bottom line, to me, is that there are lots of things that would make this world a better place. Most of them, however, are not the business of the government. Hence, the government should stay out of it."

That way we'll maintain the present balance of power between small factions and the world will never change.

GEnie Topic - Do we really need Secrets and Privacy?
Beginning message, by me:

I once read a sci-fi story where someone invented a cheap means of seeing past events anywhere on earth. But it turned out it would only work back to about 100 years. On the other hand, the past includes one instant before the present. So the device became a means for spying on each other.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of our culture which worships privacy and secrecy? I tend to think the advantages are mostly for the power brokers, who wouldn't want some of their techniques to be generally known. A main feature of nationalism is the keeping of national secrets, which necessarily includes keeping them from the people. **How can a true democracy exist when we're not allowed to know all the facts?**

Can you think of any social problem that wouldn't be at least greatly alleviated by less privacy? Crime and hypocrisy, and the conditions that foster these, would be virtually eliminated. Wouldn't the advantages be to the "good" people of the world? For a moment, think of society as a giant computer. How is it enhanced by most information processing units not having access to all information available to others?

So that brings up two problems. Any variation from the norm is seen by many as "bad". We cut back on the leading edge of social, and perhaps other, evolution. I've heard that the Israeli kibbutzes, which featured less privacy, tended to produce more mediocrity, because people were inhibited in achieving beyond the norm. But I think that, given time, a new, more progressive, kind of sociey would evolve, simply because the old one would become obselete.

The other problem is, how do we ever get _equal_ access to information? It isn't a matter of getting, but of approaching. We have to start with those institutions who most value their secrets, and whose secrets most effect our lives.

"Secrecy: The easiest way to put it is to ask if you really want the world to know where the Allied disposed of the remains of Herman Goring and the other Nazi bigwigs?" [I haven't quite figured out the point of this post.]

Are you suggesting we might be embarrassed by it? Well tough. Maybe we deserve to be embarrassed. It seems like a rather minor issue to me. Please tell me what you think would happen. I think we would find just as many things to embarrass others. Are you saying that keeping our atrocities secret maintains our "superior" reputation?

"And what "atrocities" are you speaking of?"

How would I know, in this culture of secrecy?

"However, I don't necessarily want the government to have the power to download the list of all the videos that I have watched :) "

And my question again is WHY NOT, if we could also download information about everybody else's habits, including government officials, and create statistics. Do you think you would stand out then? Do you think society would keep the hypothetical morals of today? I don't.

"When my wife and I are making romance, we require privacy. "

Actually I purposely avoided distinguishing types of privacy. I maintain that ultimately society would be better off in every area with less privacy. (I admit I'm a bit of a weirdo.)

I see the nuclear family as one usually physically stronger person and one weaker person who separate themselves from the greater community by walls and customs and start making more weaker people, a situation ripe for abuse. (And I wasn't raised in abusive family.) One purpose of community is to protect the weaker people, who may have value unrelated to their physical strength.

"One ID number would save a lot of aggravation. The only thing I object is the ability of corporations and cops to enter my number into a central computer and read out every private detail about my life. Keep the number, but outlaw the files."

What's the point of having the number if you don't have a file of information to go with it? If there's a file, who should and shouldn't have access to it, and why?

I'm all in favor of having one ID number, with _everyone_ having access to everyone's file. I realize that "moral" and "law-abiding" aren't necessarily synonyms, but if we accept the need for police, why not let them do their jobs as efficiently as possible? "Criminals", political and otherwise, will continue to find ways around such systems. These feelings are probably based somewhat on Utopian culture visions, but I think a society with fewer secrets is a major path toward that Utopia. Doesn't anyone else see the tremendous amount of energy we put into keeping our lives secret, from each other as well as from governments, corporations, "criminals" and "perverts"?

Yes, corporations will use such information to send us junk mail. Such shotgun marketing has to be rather inefficient. I try to make it even less efficient by returning postage-paid envelopes with my thoughts about the promotion, but not my return address. I say give them more rope to hang themselves, or help them to see the light sooner. Yes, it's an added burden on the post office, so let them stop being so friendly to junk mail in the first place.

My next step might be to remove my name and address from junk mail and recycle it back into the postal system. Then they might raise the junk mail rates and companies would start researching us more carefully to send to a smaller audience. This would reduce their junk mail budget, and possibly even product cost.

There's now an interesting device you can put next to your phone and connect to the phone line. When you get a junk call, you push a button and hang up. It keeps the line open and says something like, "This line doesn't receive that kind of call. Please remove us from your list", then hangs up. Too bad there isn't a way to keep them on the line as long as possible, without tying up my line.

"I realize that some of you out there are so incredably nosey that you would jump at the chance to know everything about everybody."

Actually, I'm mostly tired of the effort and resulting restrictions of keeping and pretending to keep secrets. If there weren't so many secrets, those nosey people would find that spying was no longer fun.

"It would be a good idea for cars to have identification numbers or bar codes on their top surfaces, visible from the sky. The government could use surveillance satellites, carrying cameras downlinked to computers, to calculate the speed of every car. "
[Tongue-in-cheek I think]

I know you didn't intend it this way, but that sounds great to me, if it's ever economical. If we're going to have laws, why not enforce them as efficiently as possible? Unlike your [later] scenario, I think we'd soon realize that we don't want to emphasize so many traffic laws so much.

I'd only taken it as far as having cameras on random freeway overpasses etc. Ideally we'd replace tickets, fines and such with increased premiums/taxes for our socialized insurance (oops, wrong topic) according to speed and speed relative to surrounding cars, and a mailed notice of same. It would also help to spot stolen cars.

I've always been in favor of replacing prohibitions and commandments with biases in taxes and insurance premiums in many areas. Sanctions would of course be proportional to the dangers and hardships caused to others. That way we control statistical numbers while leaving final decisions up to individuals.

Someone mentioned earlier that having one ID # would make totalitarian government much easier. Part of my original point was that if people in high places weren't able to keep secrets, totalitarianism would be impossible, except perhaps by a very benevolent establishment.

"[Concering employee monitoring and evaluation.] Here, the employees' loss of PRIVACY translates into a degradation of service to the customer."

I think in general, we'd all be better off if companies stuck to evaluating the bottom line, productivity. In the case of those who use machinery dangerous to themselves (if they expect insurance coverage) or especially to many others, I think some drug testing is necessary. But they have to find a way to screen out traces of drugs that may have been in one's system for several days.

"If people don't demand privacy, and defend it as a basic right, we would only be placing weapons into the hands of those who would like to program our lives, as though we were their robots."

Suppose that in general, whatever information people want from us, we request equivalent information from them. Of course this wouldn't work everywhere, but it might be a nice start.

I agree with you all that Radio Shack has no business asking/demanding, the information they do. But I doubt I've ever been asked for more than my address, at least partly so they can send me junk mail, and maybe my phone number for no good reason. If they asked for my SS#, I might ask them for theirs in return, and if anything, we might exchange false numbers.

I just wish RS and others would research me more carefully and only send promotions for things I might actually be in the market for. Shotgun marketing necessarily adds to the cost of their merchandise, which is economic reason, to go with the moral reason to boycott them.

Suppose further that all the findings of every investigative agency were made public. Once again, if our "enemies" have them, why shouldn't our "friends" have them also if they want them?

Suppose that a world government made all bank accounts world-wide as open to investigation as they are here (I'm not sure just what that means), and the above principle applied.

Suppose that taxable income information of anyone who declares an annual income of over $75,000(?), buys a house over $300,000(?), etc. was automatically made available to the public. Who would be hurt by it, and how? There's no good place to draw the line, but sometimes you have to draw it anyway. I'd of course prefer that everybody's finances be open, but we should start with those who have the greatest effect on the economy, and those most likely to be big-time crooks. The possession and possible availability of excess money/power has corrupted many. In general, anyone with wealth maybe four times the average (and the economic and social forces that got him there) warrents investigation in proprtion to the difference. By any scientific measurement, the great majority of people aren't _inherently_ "superior" by more than that degree.

The Mar./Apr.'96 issue of Utne Reader has a 16 page multi-article (and ad), "Working Assets Guide to Making a Difference". One section is on "Following the Trail of Money". They're talking mainly about campaign funding, but I think this rather obvious principle applies to many areas, and is unduly restricted by our desire for national, corporate, personal (etc.) privacy.

"I'm not strictly against giving up some privacy to fight crime. For example, I feel safer knowing that TV cameras are around when I take money out of an automatic teller machine. But I wouldn't want to go to the other extreme and have cops conduct random searches to find gangsters. I don't have a formula for making the distinction."

The formula represented here says that one is passive and doesn't interrupt your activity, while the other is intrusive, probably both during and after the fact.

"Perhaps all votes should be open public records. [There was more on that, interesting arguments.]

You present a good argument, but I'm still not sure you're agreeing with me. This is an obvious area where complete openness can create difficulties, but I certainly have more respect for a statement from someone who'll own up to it.

"Dan, I fail to see how keeping medical records private, or not revealing the price one paid for one's house, contributes to crime...or what revealing same does to =prevent= crime."

Well, at least you folks are giving me a chance to analyze the subject fully, even if not presenting much of a challenge. Now if I can only figure out why it's such a challenge for most of you. :)

I'm not sure I said revealing medical records specifically would prevemt crime. But the principle applies, on the average, across the board. If you insist, I'll find a way that it applies here. Well, I don't know how much this is considered to be a crime, but it certainly should be. If you know you have AIDS and you intentionally don't tell a sex partner, it would be good (for the rest of us) to be able to prove that you had been tested and that you knew, and thereby inhibit other such omissions.

It's more important for "criminals" to keep secrets from governments/establishments than it is for you and I. To the degree keeping secrets is made more difficult, criminals are caught. Of course we have different perspectives on what should be "criminal" and what G/Es we respect and support. We can only come to agreements on such issues to the degree that we know how others really think, feel and act.

"I suspect you've never lived through the results of having personal matters made public, or you'd feel a lot different about the consequences."

That's true, but I like to think I'd first be concerned about what's good for the greater community, and eventually for the great majority of individuals, almost certainly including myself.

"In a community with high levels of anti-homosexual feeling, you can lose your job, your church membership, and any hope of being elected to public office or serving in a volunteer capacity if you are "outed." "

When this happens to you, the community and sub-community involved also suffer in proportion to your potential contribution. If it happens a lot, they are diminished, or they begin to notice and maybe change some attitudes. You, on the other hand, join other more tolerant communities and hopefully enhance them. I consider myself a bit of a Socialist, but this is the kind of area where the "free market" prinicple applies for the good of the whole. We have to live a little bit as though the "revolution" had already happened in order to make it happen, or make it unnecessary.

"Of course, you've given the person the option of simply giving up the job, the house, and whatever else and moving to a more liberal area. Not much of a choice, IMO."

I guess I'm not so committed to such things. If I lived in such a community, later I might be thankful for being helped to leave.

"I admire your thought that you would be more concerned about the good of the community than your own privacy when considering whether some private issue should be made public. But I suspect that if you actually WERE in that position, you'd feel a lot differently."

I didn't mean that I would necessarily volunteer such information, but I'd welcome changes in attitudes and legislation that would encourage us all to be more open.

"I would NOT feel it was either necessary or desirable for "community good" to expose any number of private matters to public scrutiny when the public good was in no way involved."

Please give an example of such a situation, where the public good is in no way involved.


Send me your thoughts.
Dan Robinson, danrob@efn.org, Eugene, Oregon
My home page: http://www.efn.org/~danrob/