Over New Year’s, I had the pleasure of attending Renaissance Weekend and it made me think about the issue of privacy and how it, like many rights, is unevenly distributed.
This is a three-day, invitation-only, off-the-record confluence of people who get together to talk about issues and socialize. Some of the common themes of the 500 break out sessions were around topics of sexual harassment, cryptocurrency, the divided political landscape, and innovation.
I would be shunned and disinvited if I shared specifics but I did want to make an observation about privacy from this, the fourth Renaissance Weekend that I’ve attended.
The Bill of Rights’ 4th Amendment guarantees the people a right to privacy and restricts the government’s ability to unreasonable search and seizure. Since the 9/11 event, the Patriot Act has codified unlimited surveillance. You probably missed it but last year, Wikileaks revealed that Apple and Samsung products can actively record what you are doing and saying as well as the geolocation of your activities.
The standard response to this is “Good! If you aren’t doing anything wrong, then you should have nothing to hide.” This of course ignores that a circumstantial case against anyone can easily be made using casual conversations, geolocation, and buying habits. Imagine your family, friends and colleagues having access to every conversation, website browsing history, and expletive uttered in traffic and you begin to grasp the problem.
Of course, the right to privacy is not distributed evenly. When it comes to withholding files about the JFK Assassination, military “black” budgets and deployments, and the Federal Reserve’s accounting, the right to privacy is absolute and we are asked to trust that it is all in our best interests.
It seems that illusion of rights is more valued than the actual preservation of rights. As the Chinese seek to give a “score” to all its citizens, we are also tilting towards a state where opinions are suppressed or unspoken and the lines between Orwellian “thought crime” and political incorrectness are blurred by those who wield the instruments of power: the press, the judiciary, and the government. Let’s all remember that just because people don’t contradict you when you express an opinion about race, religion, politics, or sexual mores, that doesn’t mean they agree with you. They may be afraid, taking notes to report you, or just not that interested in dialogue. For more on this topic, read this blog about humor, and this one about the subversive nature of humor.
To those who think privacy is not a concern, I refer you to the conversation I had with a man who directs data mining for a very large, cross-governmental entity. He said that one of their most useful tools is mining spending habits with card transactions. From those habits , they zoom down to individuals’ locations and scale up to trends of any scale. With the advent of the so-called “Internet of Things” that I first heard about at 2013 Renaissance Weekend, this, real-time surveillance by everyday objects will become absolute.
With regard to the existential threat of cryptocurrency against the nation-state and its sponsors in the fractional reserve banking system, the problem should be manageable soon. It turns out that with the exception of one coin, all transactions can be sourced by IP address and with proper forensic technique, individuals can be identified and their financial privacy uncovered.
With the help of bank-sponsored tokens, futures contracts, exchange-traded short funds, and institutional investment desks and funds, the threat of cryptocurrencies should be brought under control just as the gold market and foreign exchange can be de-commoditized by thoughtful application of force.
If you believe that privacy is a right, then having the government and corporate collaborators know all the financial activity of its citizens could be an issue. If you think that only government, corporations, and powerful people are entitled to privacy then you will sleep well at night knowing that every action, conversation, and inner thought and feeling will be accessible via your smartphone and Fitbit. However, if you suspect the end-user-license-agreement (EULA) on the operating systems reigning over the wired world might have consequences, you may want to check out some movies such as Brazil and The Lives of Others (about East Germany and the pervasive surveillance of that dystopian police state).