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How privacy committees sometimes do more to harm the cause of privacy than to help it

A little story (fiction)
Once upon a time in a little town called Tim (I can't remember how to spell the whole name, but it starts with Tim), the farmers would sometimes go out into the cornfields to discuss the state of their town, and only the ears of corn would hear them. They were a little upset about the new credit records being distributed by The Credit Company (TCC), so they decided a committee should be formed to look into the matter. They presented their concerns to the mayor of the town, and he and various other officials were deeply concerned about the privacy of the citizens of Tim, so they passed a law prohibiting the widespread disemenation of credit information.

Later, with the invention of the telephone, there was concern about wiretapping; the citizens using the phone no longer had the same level of privacy afforded by the vast cornfields; all conversations now went through the local switch at The Phone Company (TPC). Sometimes newspaper reporters would tap into the phone wires and write all kinds of terrible stories about certain activities taking place in Tim. Since TPC was government owned or government regulated or something like that, people asked the government to protect their privacy. The government introduced laws requiring TPC to make its circuits safe from wiretapping so that only law enforcement officials could tap into the phone wires.

Later, came the invention of television. At first TV equipment was expensive so that only famous people appeared on TV, but as it got cheaper and cheaper, video surveillance cameras appeared, first in banks, then pointed at cashiers in grocery stores, and later, in every aisle of the grocery stores, pointing at customers. Then they began to appear pointing at cashiers in restaurants, and later at patrons in restaurants. Sometimes famous people would dine at these restaurants, and their pictures would appear in newspapers, or the like.

Once a famous woman was working out in a women's gym, and pictures of her, at the exercise machines, appeared in some newspaper. People asked their government to put a stop to this, and to pass laws against this sort of thing. Privacy committees were formed in the town hall to address the issue, and the mayor took the issue quite seriously, passing new laws, and giving police authority to prevent the widespread disemenation of private video. Of course, once this problem was solved, the cameras did not bother anyone, so more were installed to reduce crime further. They began to appear in places that were considered private, such as behind one-way mirrors in department store fitting rooms, in public washrooms, locker rooms, and the like. But because of the laws passed by the privacy committee, there was no fear. The power of law is much stronger than anything else in the town of Tim, and everyone in Tim knew that the privacy laws would protect them from the newspapers and other violators of personal privacy. This left law enforcement free to solve crimes, and at the same time left everyone in peace. This compromise between the needs of law enforcement and the needs of privacy advocates was accepted by the majority of the residents of Tim.

People in Tim knew that privacy was "the right to be left alone", so when it was suggested that some members of Tim might be conspiring against law enforcement efforts, by visiting friends in their homes rather than using the privacy-protected telephones, a new proposal was put forth. Reppilc, it was called, and it consisted of a microphone installed in each home. This was not considered to violate privacy because it was only available to law enforcement, and also could not produce any sound.

A loudspeaker in every home would clearly be a violation of privacy because it would clearly violate "the right to be left alone". A microphone, however, was more acceptable, because it would not necessarily disturb a resident. However, it was accepted only if the data could be kept safe and secure within the Police Department of Tim. A secure home microphone could not disturb people the way that a non-secure home microphone could, because a non-secure system could let confidential conversations fall into the hands of the town's newspaper, violating the "right to be left alone". This is why recordings from all home microphones were, by law, kept under lock and key, in the Police Department of Tim town.

Other inventions, such as card-controlled access were treated in similar ways. The new key-card issued to each resident of Tim had a unique code that would identify that individual. Laws were passed, or suggestions were made (I forget which) by the privacy advocates, against recording and selling the information from the card readers. The proposed system would read the card, identify the individual, transmit this information to a remote location, and compare the identity of the individual to an access control list, while promising to comply with the law or suggestion (whichever it was). This kept everybody happy because the newspapers could not print stories about who was going out with whom, and people who slept in late stopped getting junk mail from coffee manufacturers.

Attaining privacy by making private information available to everyone

Most of the people were happy at Tim, but a few left to form a new settlement, further down the river. They felt that making information, like DMV records, credit reports, and the like, publically available would make us more aware of just how much data really is collected about us, and it would make us aware of what the consequences of that data collection might be.

People in the new settlement came to realize that "junk mail" serves a useful purpose; it serves as a constant reminder of just how much is known about us. Therefore they did not pass any "privacy laws" prohibiting businesses from sending out unsolicited mail, because they knew that such laws were not privacy-enhancing laws, but, rather pseudoprivacy-enhancing laws. These people knew that "pseudoprivacy" and privacy are not the same thing, but, rather, are often opposites. They new that pseudoprivacy technology like the Clipper-clip-on was not in their best interests.


Stories or parables sometimes make complicated ideas clearer. William James said "The art of becoming wise is the art of knowing what to overlook", and sometimes overlooking the specific details helps us see things in a different light.
Privacy issues of wearable cameras versus surveillance cameras.