Law in the Internet Society
-- CharlesColman - 12 Dec 2008

My second paper is a heartfelt (but hopefully not mawkish) little tale about realizing the error of one’s ways.

Privacy and Empathy

I wasn’t too worried about privacy until recently. I was (and still am) afraid of another terrorist attack, and I was basically willing to let the government see or hear anything it claimed to need in order to ensure that my subway car wouldn’t spontaneously blow up on the way to school one day. I was one of those people who would say “go ahead and monitor me; I don’t have anything to hide.” And I really thought I meant it.

A few weeks ago, I got a call from the FBI. Now, I realize the FBI has some resources at its disposal, but I was nevertheless a bit surprised to receive their call at my unlisted cell phone number. The man on the other line was seeking information about an identity theft incident that happened to me earlier this year. (This was actually the second time in a year that someone had managed to steal funds from my bank accounts, and I was worried at the time that it would look suspicious. Citibank replaced the funds, and I quickly forgot about the whole thing.) Now, I’m not a fool—though victimized twice in one year, I’ve always been alert for phishing and similar schemes—and I told the person claiming to be an FBI agent that I would not give him any sensitive information over the phone. No need, he said, reading me the last four digits of each of my three bank accounts. They had apprehended the person who they believed had stolen my money, he explained, and all he wanted was to know how I had been inconvenienced by the incident, perhaps in order to trump up charges or to lend color to a courtroom opening statement. I gave him the mundane details: I had spent $5 on faxes to Citibank, and briefly worried about coming up with an apartment security deposit that I ultimately made on time with replenished funds. He thanked me, and that was that.

Two days later, the doorman called up to say I had a visitor. I was hosting a dinner party that night and assumed it was one of the guests, so I asked the doorman to let him up. A man in his mid-30s showed up at my door asking if I was Charles Colman. I said I was. He looked confused, said he was looking for someone else, and walked away. I had no idea what to make of this bizarre incident. Could it really be a coincidence, I wondered, that this happened the same week as my first call from the FBI? Ever the irrational worrier, I became convinced that I was under investigation for conspiring with the person who had stolen from me. They must have had a picture of another suspect and wanted to see if I was that person. Sure, there were problems with this theory. Why would the FBI have identified itself to me if I was under investigation? (To try to catch me in a lie under false pretenses, clearly.) What would the guy have done if the doorman hadn’t let him up? (Flash his badge, of course, but why pull out the big guns if you don’t have to?) Perhaps this was some sort of elaborate meta-scam, but for whatever reason, the investigation explanation struck me as more likely.

Now that I was convinced I was under FBI surveillance, my “I don’t have anything to hide” refrain was put to the test. I started thinking about my transactions and online activity from the FBI’s perspective, asking how suspicious perfectly innocent activities would look to them. I saw a trailer for “Valkyrie” on TV and wanted to find out whether the actor playing Hitler resembled the real man; immediately after starting the google image search, I regretted it. What would they think of my pulling up images of Hitler? I followed up with a search for “Valkyrie” on imdb just to let the FBI know where I was coming from. Nothing to see here, guys! Later that week, I had to find a pincite for a journal article citation to Karl Marx’s Theory of Ideas. I didn’t have time to locate the quoted portion at the Columbia library, but I didn’t want to check the book out, either. What would the FBI think of my un-American reading materials? I resolved to check out the book but return it the following day, indicating to the FBI that Marx had failed to pique my interest. Some things, I decided, weren’t even worth the risk: do I really need to know the specifics of the Mumbai attacks? Am I that curious about how the World Trade Center site is coming along?

At some point, I realized the absurd degree to which the specter of government surveillance was controlling my life. My “I don’t have anything hide” mantra was all talk. When placed under the slightest stress, it had crumbled like the Geneva Convention at Guantanamo. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my “wiretaps for everyone!” approach had been based on pure self-interest: naturally, the government wouldn’t be monitoring my communications, since I wasn’t the sort of person they would be concerned about. I could only benefit from them monitoring the communications of others, since they might hit on the needle in a haystack that would prevent a terrorist attack. But once I became convinced, whether rationally or irrationally, that I was being monitored, privacy suddenly seemed a lot more important. It wasn’t that I actually feared being prosecuted for anything. I just didn’t want the increased attention that “un-American” activities would bring. And I would bet that most advocates for privacy-infringing security measures are just like me: they’re perfectly fine with the details of their lives being visible, as long as the government is busy scrutinizing the details of someone else’s.

Which brings me to my final, perhaps superfluous point: that much of American law and policy is based on a deplorable lack of empathy for people in circumstances that differ from our own. It might be rich people trying to squash organized labor, conservative Christians fighting gay marriage, the well-educated and articulate urging criminal procedure reforms that harm those who don’t know and can’t assert their rights, or in my case, people favoring surveillance that will have a disparate impact on the privacy of other ethnic groups and nationalities. (I don’t mean to suggest that traditionally Democratic groups can’t display a lack of empathy for traditionally Republican groups, though I do think the latter deserve more of the blame.) Empathy toward the “other” doesn’t come naturally to many people, but it’s something we should all strive for. When we do, many will see that their positions on privacy merit serious reflection.

- start comment -

Very interesting, and a little bit scary, but it seems to me you're worried more about Bush-style threats to constitutionally protected rights than the invasion of privacy that allows them. Looking up Hitler and Marx shouldn't be something you need to hide, and obviously following people's library and browsing habits to crack down on that sort of thing is bad. But it seems that the 1984 threat to privacy is obvious enough (although the specifics, like google logging your searches) to be not so scary as the idea that the FBI easily got your unlisted number. And of course, the most frightening thing of all will be if you get an advertisement in the mail for Valkyrie from Blockbuster, or start getting a lot of spam advertising identity theft protection.

On a completely separate note, I think a major argument for privacy follows from the illogic of your other examples (anti-gay marriage, squashing unions, etc.). Even if the cost of doing these things is low, there isn't really much benefit. Stopping gay marriage isn't going to keep gay people from doing what they want, squashing unions only works if everyone does it (and the market will insure someone doesn't), and snooping around the internet will turn up millions of people looking for Hitler images or check out socialist texts before it will catch an even semi-competent terrorist. It is one thing to sacrifice some right in order to be safer, but another to sacrifice for the mere illusion of protection.

-- HamiltonFalk - 17 Dec 2008

Thanks for the comments. I think a loss of privacy will result in a chilling effect on one's willingess to exercise constitutional rights, regardless of the actual contours of those rights. The fact that our rights have been constricted during the Bush years makes the problem more acute, but I suspect the phenomenon holds during better times. Also, just to clarify, the list including gay marriage and union-busting only served to illustrate the many ways in which people's political views reflect a lack of empathy for the "other." No other comparison with the privacy issue was intended.

-- CharlesColman - 18 Dec 2008



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r4 - 18 Dec 2008 - 06:40:16 - CharlesColman
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