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.

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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).

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