March 9, 2006

Issues in privacy

My March Computerworld column is an exhortation to IT workers to get involved in IT-related public policy issues. Probably the most complex and serious ones are in the area of privacy. Options I posed include:

• Do nothing.
• Maintain sharp limits on government acquisition and retention of information.
• Mandate that the government keep its information in separate silos.
• Create strong rules about how governments can use information once acquired.
• Hamstring corporate acquisition, retention, or use of information. (Much of the government’s potential data comes through private channels.)
• Various mixes and matches of the above.

My own view, which I plan to lay out and defend in a series of posts, is a complex one. Historically, protections such as the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution have focused on limiting the government’s access to information. And this has been wise. As was shown for example by the misuse of FBI information under J. Edgar Hoover and the misuse of IRS information in the Nixon Administration (which Nixon claimed he didn’t innovate), once information gets into government hands its use is hard to control.

I see no good alternative to preserving these safeguards as long as possible. Maybe the Bush Adminstration should have gotten legislative permission for its data mining adventures and maybe the permission should have been denied, but the fact that they pursued them while circumventing the legal safeguards is utterly deplorable. That few people have suffered from the violationof these safeguards, or the worrisome provisions of the Patriot Act, merely proves that our multiple layers of safeguards are strong. It does not justify chipping away at them illegally, and I’m not real thrilled about legally undermining them either.

On the other hand — many of those safeguards are eroding fast. The amount of information the government can or potentially could obtain legally from credit card records, electronic auto toll tracking, etc. is staggering. National ID cards and passports are going electronic. The US Constitution apparently doesn’t prevent sensitive devices snooping into your house from the outside. Web surfing behavior is being submitted as criminal evidence. The government WILL have access to a very complete dossier on your activities, rather soon. Legislation to mandate this data be maintained in independent silos, while worthy, is just a stopgap.

And so in the US (and other developed countries, I would think), it is not just enough to fight government information acquisition. That’s a losing battle, especially since the most absolute safeguards can not be maintained in the face of the terrorist threat. Thus, I think we also need some reaffirmation — in principle, at least, if not in actual law — that “thou shalt not be hassled.”

I’m not yet sure what form(s) I think that needs to take.


One Response to “Issues in privacy”

  1. The Monash Report»Blog Archive » The inevitable breaches of privacy, and what to do about them on March 10th, 2006 11:00 am

    […] Let’s continue the discussion of infomation privacy. Basically, governments and other large enterprises will be able to track almost everything about you — purchases, movements, medical details, communcations, even the things you think about (if you think about them long enough to search the Web for a bit of information). This trend can realistically be slowed, but it probably can’t be stopped. […]

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