Dear Dilbert: Please tell your pointy headed boss that privacy is not dead yet

Scott Adams recently penned an essay on why he thinks privacy is dead. Here’s why he’s dead wrong.

Let me begin by saying I’m a big Scott Adams fan. With his Dilbert comic strip I think he identified the unique and funny characteristics of geek culture way before anybody else. I still laugh when I read Dilbert; I have encountered my share of pointy headed bosses.

Yesterday, while everyone else was going nutso over our quadrennial bout of insanity known as the presidential elections, Adams was penning a blog post titled “The Privacy Illusion.”

He starts with a big disclaimer saying his blog is not about advocacy or opinion, but then goes on to make a pretty strong argument that people’s concerns over their privacy are pointless.

His reasons? The government already knows a crapload of stuff about you, and can find out a lot more with the appropriate legal paperwork. Thus we have no privacy and we should all get over it, like Scott Nealy famously said a billion years ago.

For example:

The government doesn't know your spending details. But your bank and your credit card company do. And the government can subpoena bank records anytime it cares enough to do so. The government can't always watch you pay for stuff with cash, but don't expect that to last. At some point in the next twenty years, physical currency will be eliminated in favor of digital transactions.

Your government doesn't know who you are having sex with, but only because it doesn't care. If the government started to care, perhaps because it suspected you of a crime, it could get warrants to check your email, text messages, phone records, and online dating account. It could also make your lover testify about your sexual preferences and practices. It did exactly that with Bill Clinton.

Adams makes a couple of common but faulty assumptions that people – and by people in this case I mean mostly Libertarians like Adams – often make.

One false assumption is that by giving up some information to some parties, you suddenly have lost the right to make that same information private to others. It’s called selective disclosure, and we all do it every single day. We tell our doctors things we’d never tell our bosses. We tell our friends things we wouldn’t necessarily want repeated to our spouses. And if our doctors or friends went spreading that info around to our bosses and spouses, we’d be mightily pissed.

Yes, it is absolutely true that a lot of information about us is public, like the property we own, whether we have a criminal record, and where and how often we’ve voted. Those bits of information are all necessary for a democracy to function (even a quadrennially insane one).

There are other bits of information that are not public but are accessible to government and some private entities – like social security numbers and driving records. My bank or insurance company can easily find these things out; my neighbor, not so much. There are good reasons for that too. In this case, there are laws regulating who can legally get at this information and who can’t.

In fact, there are laws regulating the government in this regard. Uncle Sam can’t just pull any information he wants about you for any reason; he’s got to have a good reason, and he’s almost always got to prove it to a judge.

That doesn’t mean law enforcement doesn’t abuse this privilege to get at information it has no right to see, or that judges don’t agree too easily with these kinds of requests. Both of those things happen. But again, that’s selective disclosure – it’s not public information – and it’s regulated. Abuses are the exception, not the rule.

Adams goes on to talk about surveillance cameras and license plate cameras in toll booths that can track your location. Again, this is not information that should be shared widely – and if it is, the organization that’s sharing it usually catches some heat. (Though location privacy is an extremely large hole in our legal fabric, one that needs to be sewn up, and soon.)

Then Adams loses it entirely by talking about how the whole concept of an Orwellian Big Brother is passe.

The Big Brother concept seems a lot like the bogey man. It isn't a real risk to law-abiding citizens; it just feels like one. Some would argue that while the government of the United States in its current form is unlikely to flagrantly abuse your private information and get away with it for long, that situation could change, as it did in Hitler's Germany. I would counter by noting that any argument that uses a Hitler analogy is self-refuting.

For the benefit of the absolutists reading this, I will agree that the odds of the U.S. Government becoming Nazi-like are non-zero. But you have the same odds of being hit by a meteor, and you don't modify your life to avoid meteors. Likewise, you probably shouldn't modify your life because you fear the government might go Nazi. Just relax, enjoy the promise of technology, and stop worrying about Big Brother.

First, I think the citizens of China, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Eqypt, Turkey, Libya, Pakistan, and the other governments that have used the Internet to track down enemies of the state would all disagree with him. “Law abiding” exists entirely within the eyes of whoever is defining the law at that moment. Hitler is dead, but fascism and its close cousins are alive and kicking.

Even if we are just talking about this country, a look at recent history shows that privacy abuses routinely occurred, especially during the War on Terror conducted by the Bush Administration. (And it hasn’t changed all that much under Obama.)

How did all those people end up in Gitmo or shipped off to foreign prisons? It wasn’t because they got stopped for speeding or hit by a meteor. Apparently Adams missed the stories about the police bugging privileged conversations between terror suspects and their attorneys. Even if its intentions were good – and I’m not saying they always are -- our government was acting on its own, Nazi-style, US Constitution and jurisprudence be damned.

Let me quote the ACLU on this one:

The fear of terrorism has led to a new era of overzealous police intelligence activity directed, as in the past, against political activists, racial and religious minorities, and immigrants. This surveillance activity is not directed solely at suspected terrorists and criminals. It's directed at all of us. Increasingly, the government is engaged in suspicionless surveillance that vacuums up and tracks sensitive information about innocent people.

Big Brother a bogey man? Perhaps Adams is just stirring the pot for fun and doesn't actually believe any of this stuff. Still, this is shallow thinking even for a guy who draws cartoons for a living.

Finally, Adams wrote his post entirely about how the government having access to all  this information obliterates our privacy. He fails to notice or mention how nongovernment entities – corporations and other organizations – may also abuse our privacy.

Again it comes down to selective disclosure. Do individuals have the right to control who sees their information and what they can do with it? Absolutely. That’s the thing we’re fighting right now over things like Do Not Track and location privacy. That battle isn’t over; it has barely begun. No matter what Dilbert’s boss believes.

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