Dismissing privacy

I’ve been very disappointed by many friends’ cavalier attitude toward both our government’s invasions of our privacy and its use of the most extreme forces of legal process against those who would tell us the truth about what the government has been doing.

One specific disappointment has been the various versions of “I don’t care if the government listens to my calls. I’ve got nothing to hide.” (Usually with some lame joke about how tedious it would be to listen to their conversations.) It’s as if they know nothing about what led to the American revolution. Didn’t these people go to high school? Don’t they know that each of the privacy-related rights spelled out in the constitution was there for good and specific reasons—because of actual abuses suffered by ordinary people?

The most disturbing of the recent revelations is not how much data that they’re sweeping up (pretty much everything) nor the incredibly lax standards they seem to have about exposing the data (my data and their own!) to a surprisingly large number of people. It’s that they’re sweeping up everything and then keeping it for years.

There are several problems here, but I want to focus on two of them.

It’s not okay just because it’s still secret

At one level, I understand people who trust the government enough to think that it’s okay (or at least less bad) to have the government sweeping up all their private information—as opposed to, let’s say, Google or Facebook or Microsoft (or Monsanto or ADM) doing it. I can accept the ideal of government as a force for good. We’re still reasonably close to having a functional democracy—a few tweaks to campaign finance law and we might very well get back a government that was responsive to the desires of its citizens.

But even if you trust the government not to use your information inappropriately, I think recent events prove that you can’t trust them to keep it secret. We’ve just seen a large leak of exactly the information that the government has been trying it’s very hardest to keep secret. But we only know about it because a brave leaker went public and because a free press published what they’d learned. How many leaks were not to the public, but instead to a foreign government or a criminal organization? We don’t know, because those leaks go unreported. We can’t know. Even the government doesn’t know, and if it did know it wouldn’t tell us.

If the government can’t keep the details of its own most secret programs from becoming public, why would you imagine that it could keep your details secret? For all you know, your information has already been leaked to criminal organizations, to foreign governments, to domestic corporations, to lobbying organizations and other influence peddlers—to anybody who could get an advantage by knowing secrets.

Maybe massive amounts of your information collected by the NSA have already leaked. The next time there’s an unauthorized charge on your credit card, maybe it’s because the NSA leaked your credit card number.

And of course that would just be true information about you. Maybe there’s a bunch of false information about you in the giant NSA databases. The next time you get turned down for a credit card or insurance or a job, maybe it’s because false information about you leaked to people who used it to make a decision about it.

And here is where we get back to why the idea that “I’ve got nothing to hide” is such a terrible idea.

It’s not okay just because you have nothing to hide

One friend made a short list of every “crime” he could remember having committed—a couple of youthful indiscretions, a couple of protests, a couple of harmless acts that were circumstantially appropriate but perhaps violations of some code or another. He was willing to own up to those—”If you want to prosecute me, go ahead!”

But, of course, that’s not how it works. The federal government doesn’t care about such things—or, at least, it doesn’t care until you become a “person of interest” in some other matter.

I don’t know whether my friend has committed any other federal crimes or not. But I do know that he has crossed international borders several times in the last few years. Did he fill out the requisite paperwork correctly each time? Did he carry anything across the border that he shouldn’t have, such as an agricultural product? Did he declare in the section on agricultural contacts that one of his running paths was also frequented by feral pigs? Is he sure that none of his financial dealings falls under the ambit of any federal laws?

In the real world, the federal government goes out and checks these sorts of things if they suspect you of something. Worse, they go and check these things if they suspect one of your friends of something (because it gives them leverage to get you to incriminate your friend). But now they’re going to have another whole bunch of things to check—all your phone calls and emails for the past 5 years.

And don’t forget that it’s trivially easy to convict you of conspiracy. All it takes is a single “overt act,” such as lending a friend bus fare or taking in his mail when he’d on vacation. (Well, technically it also takes an agreement and criminal intent, but apparently it’s okay if the only person in the conspiracy with those is the FBI informant.)

Don’t imagine that you’ve “done nothing wrong” just because you’re not aware of it. Unless you’re a federal prosecutor or defense attorney, you have no idea the vast array of actions that turn out to be federal crimes. One of our biggest protections has been that it’s a lot of effort to investigate and look for those crimes. If all your phone calls and emails are recorded it’s going to be a lot less effort.

As I say, I don’t dismiss out of hand the idea that the government is overall a force for good. I think our government (at all levels) has been pretty effective these last 150 years or so in reducing all sorts of bad things—there’s less poverty, there’s less casual violence, there’s less abuse of vulnerable people. But I don’t think giving the government audio recordings of all our phone calls, the texts of all our emails, or lists of every web page we visit will be much help in those things. And I think it will do real harm in those (fairly rare, but not rare enough) instances when people acting under color of law decide that somebody must be guilty of something, and make use of these new tools to prove it.

Dancing on the edge of the fiscal cliff

The tea-party right was willing to risk the hard stop in spending that would have resulted from running up against the debt limit—a game of chicken that neither the Democrats nor the sane fraction of the Republicans could take the risk of losing.

The fiscal cliff looks a little similar, but it’s much less dangerous. It’s a game that lends itself to playing through to the end, because the risk of losing isn’t nearly so bad.

Suppose we did go over the fiscal cliff. What would happen?

First, tax rates would go up for everybody. That’s bad, but it’s not terrible. Actually, taxes at those rates would produce revenue roughly equal to the amount of government people seem to want.

Second, spending would be cut, with the cuts falling on almost everything except Social Security. A lot of good stuff would be cut, but that might not be such a stiff price to pay, considering that a lot of the things that ought to be cut (such as defense spending far beyond our needs) would otherwise be very hard to cut.

The result would be a rough year or two, hard on everybody from working-class folks to defense contractors, but all those problems would be fixable. In fact, Congress would love to fix those problems! Congress could cut taxes! (Just not as much as Bush did.) Congress could boost spending! (Just not to current levels.) Really, there’s nothing congressmen like better than cutting taxes and spending money on stuff.

The other details are similar. The AMT would strike middle-class folks hard, but that could be fixed, too. In fact, having to fix it would be an opportunity to improve it—turn it back into what it was supposed to be, a minimum tax rate that applies to everyone, no matter how many tax shelters they have or how many special preferences they qualify for. The end of the “doc fix” would hurt health care providers, but that could be pretty easily fixed too. (We’ll no doubt have to make a lot of small changes to healthcare stuff, once health care reform goes into effect and we run into the inevitable glitches.)

It’s always hard to raise taxes and cut spending, so it’s hard to do what needs to be done. But that’s why the fiscal cliff is so perfect. Once we go over the edge, we won’t need to raise taxes and cut spending—we’ll need to cut taxes and raise spending, and that’s dead easy.

Dive over the fiscal cliff, then fix things. It’s not perfect, but it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as what we’ve got now.

Would we lose internet service if there were riots?

All the smart folks on twitter have been asking questions along this line. If we had civil unrest, would the government try to cut off our internet access? (I have no doubt that if they tried, they’d succeed. Internet and cell phone providers are regulated companies; they’d roll over in two seconds.)

I think that would be bad.

First of all, it would be unconstitutional. At a minimum, such an action would infringe several first amendment freedoms: speech, press, assembly, and to petition the government.

More important, in a stable democracy like the US, I think internet and cellular service would be at least as much a stabilizing force as it would be a destabilizing force. In the event of civil unrest there would be many powerful voices calling for calm and for non-violence. Shutting off the internet would silence those voices along with the voices of those trying to organize protests.

So, I just sent this note to my congressman, urging him to take steps to protect citizens’ access to telecommunications services:

Prompted by the recent news that the Egyptian government cut off internet and cell phone connectivity for its citizens, it occurred to me that this tool of repression should not be available in the United States.

At a minimum, I urge you to oppose any legislation along the lines of last year’s “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act,” but I think you should go further.

I’d very much like to see legislation that would specifically bar the government from shutting down internet or cellular connectivity for US citizens, and that would bar telecommunication providers from “voluntarily” complying with “requests” from the government that they stop providing connectivity to persons in the US.

Of course, legal solutions only go so far. They would be much strengthened by technological solutions. Cell phones and internet access points can be designed to mesh with other nearby devices. That would make it vastly more difficult for a top-down order to shut down connectivity—hopefully, difficult enough that governments wouldn’t even try.

[Updated 30 January 2011: Here’s a list of ad-hoc meshing protocols that might serve as a basis for making a top-down shutdown impossible.]