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Privacy Defined

Monday, November 12, 2007

Oddly enough, I just happened to sit down at my computer this morning to begin work on a mini-treatise of sorts on privacy and what it means to me--and hopefully means to all other Americans, too--when I read the following headline: Government seeks to redefine privacy. The Associated Press article explained that,

Privacy no longer can mean anonymity, says Donald Kerr, a deputy director of national intelligence. Instead, it should mean that government and businesses properly safeguards people's private communications and financial information.

Our government, the one we've instituted to safeguard all our rights, is now insisting that Americans should redefine what privacy means to them. From Mr.Kerr's comments, we're suppose to believe that privacy's definition is somehow synonymous with our anonymity. I think you would be a fool to accept his definition. Anonymity, when speaking in terms of privacy, is merely a benefit of having privacy. I'll explain this statement in a moment, but first, let's look at what Mr. Kerr is inferring.

He is basically saying that you should allow businesses that have in their possession information about you, in this case your private communications and financial information, to give the government access to that information while putting in place proper safeguards. Sounds good in theory, but as history shows us time and time again, anytime you give government carte blanche access to your information without any third-party supervision, they will abuse that authority every time. Furthermore, the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution demands that government officials seek permission from a judge, showing probable cause supported by oath or affirmation, to view your private communications and financial information. This amendment acts as a fundamental check on government to prevent it from arbitrarily abusing the people.

But what is privacy? We hear that word bandied about a lot recently, but have you ever really stopped to think about what privacy means to you? In my mind, privacy is nothing more than a description of a particular type of information. In other words, when it comes to information, your really only have two forms: public and private. Each form indicates who possesses control of the information. Information can, and rightfully should, be viewed as property, like you would view your home or your money or anything else you claim as your own. Who controls a particular piece of information determines if the information is private or public. So, to say that you want your privacy protected, what you're really saying is that you wish to remain in control of your personal information. Your personal information is your property and you have the right to control the use of that property just the same as you have the right to determine who can and cannot come into your home.

But what about anonymity? I mentioned that anonymity was a benefit of privacy. Actually, anonymity is derived from controlling who is allowed to know who owns a particular piece of information. As an example, let's say you see a wallet sitting on a table. From your vantage point, you can ascertain that it is a wallet, that it is sitting on a table, and that someone most certainly owns it. Somewhere, someone can claim the wallet as their property, but because they have chosen not to reveal themselves they can be said to have derived the benefit of anonymity from the control of their information. Now, you could probably walk over and open the wallet to discover who owns it, but in doing so you've taken unauthorized control of property that doesn't belong to you. And in doing so, you have violated their right to control who knows who owns the property, in this case the wallet. They loose the benefit of anonymity as soon as you learn who owns the wallet. Once they loose ultimate control of that knowledge, it can never be restored... short of killing you before you can tell someone else, that is.

The arguments being made that, "If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear," or, "I've done nothing wrong, so I don't care if they listen in on my phone calls or read my emails," falls flat when personal information is viewed from a property-ownership stand point. What proponents of unfettered government surveillance are really saying is that it's okay for government to enter and ransack their homes without permission because they have nothing to hide and are doing nothing illegal. Furthermore, they're okay with government doing this to all their neighbors and everyone else in the United States, too. Obviously, for the government to do this would most definitely require a search warrant under the Fourth Amendment. Short of repealing the Fourth Amendment, there's just is no way to get around the requirement--and rightly so.

In conclusion, your personal information is your property, period. What happens to that information is entirely up to you. For anyone to take control of that information without your knowledge or consent is a violation of your property rights. It's not about privacy; it's not about anonymity; it's about retaining control over your property.


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