Big Cousin


It’s bad enough when your government feels the need to spy on every move you make. But when they outsource this to private contractors, adding in the profit motive to their dubious approach of "security through mass behavioral modification," then you’ve gone beyond even Orwell.

The private sector will be asked to manage and run a communications database that will keep track of everyone’s calls, emails, texts and internet use under a key option contained in a consultation paper to be published next month by Jacqui Smith, the home secretary.

The British apparently don’t mind being subjugated by either Royalty or Ministry, as long as their ruler claims to protect them. At least that’s what I infer from their overall passivity on this issue.

Now, on the one hand, I think it’s clear to anyone who’s studied history that we really don’t want our governments knowing what we think or do in private, especially politically. We are not free to choose our leaders and our laws unless we’re free to think and act. The very conflation of concentrated power and information is an intoxicating mixture, which, if you study history, invariably leads to some form of oppression and subsequent destruction (which, BTW, is why we have a Bill or Rights and a constitutional separation of powers — smart stuff).

On the other hand, since I’m not a criminal or terrorist, I personally wouldn’t care (except in principle) who knows what I had for breakfast or where I went on any given day. If knowing my cereal preference could really stop Osama Bin Laden, I’d be all for it. But, alas, it’s just stupid to think that cameras and communications-monitoring equipment turned on US citizens can do anything against people who simply have nothing to lose.

But on the third hand, maybe it’s time we stop treating privacy as an implicit civil right, which the British and Chinese don’t have, and which some myopic Americans claim we don’t really have either, despite our widespread belief to the contrary.

Perhaps it’s time we start treating personal info as first class intellectual property, proprietary information, for which the laws are already quite strong, at least if you’re a business.

In other words, the reality of the situation is that my personal and private information (PPI) has real value, and not just to me, though the loss of which is certainly harmful to me. It’s at least as harmful as corporate espionage, patent infringement, and illegally copied merchandise are to corporations, especially taken in aggregate.

It’s not enough for the government to make laws to punish the idiots and criminals who invariably lose or misuse the data. When the government spies on us, it is also a material loss, akin to invoking Eminent Domain on our PPI without fair (or any) compensation. Subletting the power to corporations will only make the problem worse, not better. We don’t have to imagine what happens when corporations invoke Eminent Domain…

Consequently, if a company wants to manage my PPI, I have no problem with that, on roughly three conditions:

  1. I make the choice as to which company manages (or doesn’t) my PPI. There is true competition and consumer choice, and consistent with Free Markets.
  2. I set the rules under which my PPI is collected and shared, and those rules are honored, and violators punished by law (contract law, if nothing else).
  3. If anyone profits from using my PPI, I get the biggest share. Better yet, I can actively choose to put my PPI to work for me, with the managing company asking fees and/or a reasonable percentage.

That’s only going to happen if responsible private companies start building this private PPI infrastructure on their own, with public input, and do it faster, stronger, better than the government can. If the government owns this or contracts it out, then we’ve likely lost those rights above. If credit agencies and phone companies do this on their own, then we’ve likely lost as well — they just don’t seem to get the whole customer / service relationship…

Companies that do understand that relationship are the ones that are presently trying very hard to be responsive to customer depands — the likes of Google and Microsoft, believe it or not.

Software companies, despite ugly EULAs designed to strip your rights and protect theirs, seem to actually understand that there will be a backlash if they misuse your PPI, phone home, and so on.

Even Microsoft, with its massive dominance in the OS market, seems to take great care to listen to consumers. After all, we can, worse comes to worse, hurt the company’s bottom line by not upgrading on schedule, or switching altogether, as many have done. And it only gets better for consumers in areas with more competition, or where Microsoft is behind. We seem to not push credit or phone companies nearly as hard, perhaps because we’re just not used to feeling our consumer power on those areas, or because those some of companies are actually trying to abuse their claimed power over us and won’t willingly stop.

So the real question is: if a Google or Microsoft offered a service that recorded, at least internally, your daily path and activities, but met all of the conditions above, provided benefits to you, perhaps savings, useful location-aware information, personal-information-management, and so on, while protecting your info, would you choose to use such a service?

To make the example more concrete, let’s say they tracked your cell phone, knew where you went, how long you stayed, and maybe even vwhat you bought or liked (via some UI). But let’s also say it gave you useful information (your shopping list), saved you money (in the form of better deals, etc..), or gave you cash back for purchases. Is that a fair trade?

For me, I think it would be. It’s certainly preferable to having the government or its designees track the info instead, and provide no benefit, no accountability, and no choice. And at least I’d have the option of opting out in some form.

But what about the government in this case? Where to they get their ‘security blanket’ fix?

In one scenario, they just go ahead and spy anyway. We’re no better off. But in another scenario, the precedent of consumers owning our PPI makes it clear that any unwarranted government intrusion constitutes both a measurable and immeasurable harm.

What would most likely happen is what happened with banking — gov’t supposedly can’t see our bank accounts on a whim. But banks must also report suspicious transfers, which the gov’t can then investigate and subpoena if necessary. If the triggers aren’t too unreasonable, i.e., if they’re actually designed to catch criminals and not track the rest of us, then I think there’s a balance we can probably find.

Unfortunately, that balance would necessarily vary from country to country. Where laws exist to protect PPI, such a service could survive. In places like China or Russia or Britain, all bets are off.

The question I see is, which of the various laws, services, and regimes will arrive first? And what will people, given the power or erosion theorof, ultimately choose?

 

  1. #1 by Ira on January 3, 2009 - 6:34 am

    Anonymity is a product of the mobility of mass society. In the olden days people lived their entire lives in small villages where everyone knew everybody else’s business and there was no real privacy outside the four walls of their homes. Anonymity has a price: increased social isolation, illegal immigration, scams, crime and now terrorism.

    Avi, you have hit on the next evolutionary step – small-town lack of anonymity will be reinvented. Responsible companies like Google and Microsoft and others will catalog and organize what you call “your daily path and activities” – all the computer records and videos you leave as you access the internet and use your cellphone and credit cards.

    Your records should be available free to you and for a fee to others. You should get a cut of the fees and an alert identifying the organization or person who has targetted your information.

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