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The Privacy Illusion - Dilbert Blog

The Privacy Illusion

Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy or opinion. It is not intended to change anyone’s beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.

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The Privacy Illusion

It has come to my attention that many of my readers in the United States believe they have the right to privacy because of something in the Constitution. That is an unsupportable view. A more accurate view is that the government divides the details of your life into two categories:

1.       Stuff they don’t care about.
2.       Stuff they can find out if they have a reason.

Keep in mind that the government already knows the following things about you:

1.       Where you live
2.       Your name
3.       Your income
4.       Your age
5.       Your family members
6.       Your social security number
7.       Your maiden name
8.       Where you were born
9.       Criminal history of your family
10.   Your own criminal record
11.   Your driving record
12.   Your ethnicity
13.   Where you work and where you used to work
14.   Where you live and where you used to live
15.   Names of your family members
16.   The value of your home now
17.   The amount you paid for your home
18.   The amount you owe on your home
19.   Your grades in school
20.   Your weight, height, eye color, and hair color

The government doesn’t know your medical history. But your doctor does, and he’ll give it to the government if they produce a warrant.

The government doesn’t know your spending details. But your bank and your credit card company do. And the government can subpoena bank records anytime it cares enough to do so. The government can’t always watch you pay for stuff with cash, but don’t expect that to last. At some point in the next twenty years, physical currency will be eliminated in favor of digital transactions.

Your government doesn’t know who you are having sex with, but only because it doesn’t care. If the government started to care, perhaps because it suspected you of a crime, it could get warrants to check your email, text messages, phone records, and online dating account. It could also make your lover testify about your sexual preferences and practices. It did exactly that with Bill Clinton. Thanks to the government, I know Bill Clinton’s penis has a bend in it.

When you’re in any populated place, there’s a good chance that video surveillance cameras are recording your every move. The government can examine those recordings anytime it produces a warrant. Some of those public cameras reportedly use FBI software for facial recognition.

In California, I have a device that allows me to go through toll booths without paying cash. It sits on my windshield and communicates with the toll booth which then charges my credit card. That means the government can know whenever I cross a bridge, if they care. You might not have one of those devices on your windshield, but I’ll bet your toll booth is taking a picture of your license plate as you drive through. If the government needs to know where you’ve been, it has a lot of options.

Realistically, you can’t lose your privacy to Big Brother because you already lost it decades ago. What you do have is the right to be boring and law-abiding at the same time. It just feels like privacy to you.

I’m overstating the case a bit.  To be fair, you do have the right to take a dump with your bathroom door closed. You can also expect some privacy with your lawyer and your therapist. These minor exceptions are the crumbs that remain of your so-called right to privacy. And those crumbs remain because the government doesn’t care about them. The government controls the most ferocious military power in the history of civilization and it knows where you live; it doesn’t also need to know you have mommy issues.

Whenever I write on the topic of how our future will be awesome if only we would agree to transmit our personal-but-boring information – such as our physical locations – to a central database, I hear screams of BIG BROTHER! BIG BROTHER!

This fascinates me because I believe the phrase Big Brother has taken on some kind of meaning in our collective consciousness that is now long divorced from reason. If citizens had any substantial privacy now, it would make perfect sense to discuss the risks of trading that privacy for economic gain or convenience. But that’s like arguing whether humans should take the risk of domesticating dogs; it’s already ancient history. Sure, some people got mauled to death by dogs over the years, but canine domestication mostly worked out.

All reasonable people would agree that governments will abuse power. But have you ever had a problem that was caused by the government invading your privacy? Meanwhile, you enjoy the fact that your email works, thanks to a central database that stores your email routing information and another that stores your messages in the cloud. It’s all there for Big Brother to see anytime he asks for a warrant. That’s a tradeoff that has worked so far.

The Big Brother concept seems a lot like the bogey man. It isn’t a real risk to law-abiding citizens; it just feels like one. Some would argue that while the government of the United States in its current form is unlikely to flagrantly abuse your private information and get away with it for long, that situation could change, as it did in Hitler’s Germany. I would counter by noting that any argument that uses a Hitler analogy is self-refuting.

For the benefit of the absolutists reading this, I will agree that the odds of the U.S. Government becoming Nazi-like are non-zero. But you have the same odds of being hit by a meteor, and you don’t modify your life to avoid meteors. Likewise, you probably shouldn’t modify your life because you fear the government might go Nazi. Just relax, enjoy the promise of technology, and stop worrying about Big Brother. Realistically, he’s been ass-raping you for years, and apparently he’s not sufficiently endowed for you to have noticed. I don’t see that situation changing.

I won’t take any more of your time because today is election-day in America. If you are an adult citizen of the United States, and you already gave Big Brother your personal information when you registered, he wants to know more about your preferences in the voting booth.

Unless you think that’s too risky, Hitler-wise.