Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Strengthening Our Privacy

-- By MariahGenis - 03 May 2018

What is privacy?

Privacy is a combination of secrecy, anonymity, and autonomy. As individuals we should be able to: 1) live our lives without being subject to surveillance by the government and members of the public, 2) speak and express ourselves without being subjected to scrutiny on the basis of our opinions and ideology, and 3) make our own decisions free from unwanted influence and/or the confines of the government and society’s expectations for and limitations on our conduct.

What is our right to privacy?

Historically the right to privacy in the US has been the right of citizens to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement. The Fourth Amendment asserts the right of American people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures and requires that warrants only be issued upon probable cause with some level of specificity limiting their scope.

How is our privacy threatened?

In the 21st century our privacy is threatened primarily not by traditional law enforcement, but by private entities who offer us a product or service in exchange for the right to collect our behavioral data. Going forward we, as American citizens and global citizens, must classify behavioral data, determine the type of information that should be recognized as personal, and safeguard such information from collection and use by private entities and public authorities. The current practice is to collect as much information about our behavior as possible. Although we construe some information, such as health information, to be personal and attempt to safeguard such information, our efforts are in vain; the information can easily be extrapolated from our location and spending data. For example, most people would agree that when I go to the doctor, which doctors I see, what I see them for, whether or not I receive treatment, and what type of treatments I receive should be kept private. However, my location data reveals when I go to the doctor and how long I spend at the doctor’s office and my spending will reveal if I paid a co-pay and how much the co-pay was (which reveals the identity of the doctor visited and the purpose for the visit) and whether they prescribed medication to treat me (and may also reveal what the medication was). Location and spending data reveal far more than just where we go and what we buy throughout our day. Access to our cameras and microphones enables those collecting our behavioral data to fill in any gaps. In effect, we are at all times subject to a level of surveillance that is at the very least unsettling and when fully understood terrifying.

What should we do about it?

So what should we do about it? What are our rights? Well, as I mentioned earlier, the Fourth Amendment really only protects our personal information from unreasonable searches and seizures carried out by law enforcement. The Constitution does not grant us a broad right to privacy. However, the enumeration of certain rights in the Constitution does not mean that we as citizens don’t enjoy other rights. The Ninth Amendment makes clear that there are other rights retained by the people, and that the enumeration of rights should not be construed to deny or disparage the unenumerated rights that we retain. We must, as a society determine what rights we retain with regard to personal information and assert those rights before it becomes too late to establish that we ever possessed such rights.

Stop retaining location data

Companies that we authorize to access our location data should not be allowed to retain that data. Regardless of whether they seek access to location services only while an app is in use or more generally, retaining this information destroys any chance of privacy. Many companies claim to need access to our location to provide their services. I believe that by typing in an address users could eliminate the need for access to location. Sure, it is nice that the delivery service will already know where your food should be sent, but the effort it would take to type in the address is not burdensome and would eliminate the need for us to grant permission to our location in the first place. Most of the apps that track our locations do so even when the app is not actively in use and the comprehensive record of our movements eliminates any possibility of privacy. There is no secrecy when your location is being surveilled, there is no anonymity when your location is known at all times, and decisions made while under surveillance are never truly free from the influence of others.

Bring back CA$H

Not long ago carrying cash was a necessity. Many stores and vendors would accept credit/debit cards, but had a minimum purchase amount, and everyone preferred payment in cash. Cash purchases are superior, from a privacy perspective, because they do not involve the use of an intermediary and are not recorded by a third party. As we began purchasing more of our goods and services through apps this changed, and the percentage of cash purchases substantially decreased. The more recent trend of “going cashless” has been widely accepted, despite the fact that it is illegal to decline to accept our nation’s legal tender. For example, Sweetgreen, a popular restaurant chain, is technically cashless and represents to the public that they will only accept payment through their app or by card. However, if you ask to speak to a manager you will learn that they are legally required to keep a certain amount of cash on the premises and to accept payment in cash if a customer expresses a desire to pay in cash and an inability or unwillingness to pay by other means. By claiming to be a cashless establishment, they not only mislead the public and discriminate against those who do not have access to credit/debit cards or smartphones, they ensure that all purchases in their restaurants are tracked as part of the mass surveillance and behavior collection private entities and the government conduct.


Protecting our privacy is integral to maintaining a democratic society. In our current state, the best way to protect our citizens would be to prohibit companies from storing/retaining our location data and encouraging cash be reinstated as the primary medium for payment.

I think this is a very effective summary of material I have taught. You have got many of the primary themes of the course well-condensed into a form which is personable, easy to read, and manages to retain relative proportion among the topics, which is no small achievement. With respect to cashlessness, you have presented your own take on the subject, factually going beyond the particular points I made.

Given how well you have mastered the material, we stood to gain from your going beyond the boundaries of my points to add more of your own thinking. Any further improvement would be along those lines.

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r2 - 10 May 2018 - 15:25:01 - EbenMoglen
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