Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
-- DanaDelger - 15 Feb 2009

I was thirteen when I killed my first deer, the shot flying forth from my hands, an incantation to crumple cities and knees. My father and I follow the bullet’s path, running long across a Wyoming plain. We stand above it, knives in hand, our breath half-frozen before it leaves our lungs, and when I am ready, we kneel down, a prayer. He shows me how the knife goes in—working from the soft belly up to the ribs, his big bear hands cracking open the cavity, as easy as my mother’s spoon at Sunday supper. We take out the intestines first, quickly to avoid tainting the meat, and work our way upwards. I put my hands so deep inside I lose sight. I pull out the heart and cradle it--- such a small, small thing, but something else also. Then I know why my father has taken me here. He leans in close and says: You have to know how to do this. You have to be ready for what comes.

We locate the Fourth Amendment’s protections around places because we have an intuitive understanding of what it means to be looking for something. What does the policeman dream of, alone in the dark? The fatal gun. The fingerprint. The policeman, we reason, wants things, and things exist in places. It is those places we feel moved to protect. Of course, this understanding is an anachronism. The policeman dreams larger now. It is not your gun he wants—it is you. But it is hard for us to understand this and even harder to for us to translate the Constitutional protections anchored so strongly to place to our identities. In part this is because those very places themselves create and contextualize our understanding of what the Fourth Amendment means.

Imagine London of the 18th century--- the gutters full of dead dogs and waste, pestilence pouring out of houses, thieves and madmen thick in the streets. A world scarcely to be dreamed by those who lived before the gravitational pull of cities began to draw all towards their center. Urbanization, the rush to cities at the end of the industrial revolution, has fundamentally reshaped our ideas about privacy in the 21st century.

We can locate these changes in two main areas: first, the move away from the country, where the space itself teaches about what it means to be private and then enables that privacy, to the city, where privacy is made impossible, has radically altered what we think of as privacy. This paradigm shift has happened partly because being unable to be private brings with it forgetting that you ever wanted to. Ask a question about government searches in rural Wyoming, and rest assured you will never hear: “Why do I care? I have nothing to hide.” The landscape where I grew up in bears more resemblance to a pre-Industrial society than a post-Industrial one, and I suspect that this has more than something to do with my homeland’s attitude towards privacy and government intrusions upon it. A man like my father understands what privacy means. Living in a hard and empty place breeds people like him: self-sufficient and wild. We live and let live in Wyoming, and let living means keeping yourself firmly out of other people’s business. We have this attitude because we can, because we don’t live wall to wall people, because you can drive for hundreds of miles and see nothing but starlight. No one need ever know anything about you, where you go, or what you do. But in New York, a man’s ideas about the nature of his secrets is different. He is watched all the time, a million eyes moving, moving. He listens to his neighbors fuck, he watches couples disintegrate in public parks, he overhears the names of drugs others take while in line at the pharmacy, and the same is done back to him and more. When this man hears that the government might intercept phone calls by reaching hands into wires, it means nothing to him. When he realizes that they want more than to enter his home but his soul, it hardly matters—he ceded it to the multitudes long ago.

Second, urbanization saw the rise of a change that saw its roots in feudal societies—specialization. Living in cities allows men to create distinct tasks for one another. There are butchers, bakers and candlestick makers; the city allows us to cede control over the very necessities of our daily lives to other people. This concession carries with it a powerful implication for privacy. The Lockean idea that we put ourselves into our labor remains a seductive one; it rings true even to modern ears--- we want to protect the things we make. But we now live in a world of cities where we never make anything. Our meat comes wrapped in plastic, dead already. What does it matter if the store knows how many cans of soup I buy? Those cans are not me--- they are something else, something made and bought and devoid of me. But yet they still howl out my name to the world, and if I knew, in my gut, that they did so the way the deer’s heart sung in my hands then I would be more careful. I would take my own life back. But urbanization has created a world of people who cannot care for themselves and so do not mind who knows the details of their not-caring. Self-sufficiency allows you to be private. A man who keeps his own company keeps also his secrets.

We don’t know what to do with the Fourth Amendment. We can’t understand the policeman’s new dream. We are blind to his searching because we have been taught already by the place we live what privacy is, and what we have been taught is this: your secrets are already known. Come into the open- you have nothing to hide.

Is it really that "urbanization has created a world of people who cannot care for themselves and so do not mind who knows the details of their not-caring," or did the move away from self-sufficiency create incentives for others to want to know more about us? Who wants to waste the energy required to learn about the self-sufficient hermit when understanding him doesn't let you take advantage of his need to purchase things? The hermit lives apart from society, so society feels no burning need to control him.

-- AndreiVoinigescu - 16 Feb 2009

As to the first point, there may be something to be said about the expectation of anonymity. The city teaches you to live without secrets, but it also teaches you that nobody cares - you witness the lives of people you don't know and don't care about, and you assume they don't know or care about you. The internet is fundamentally different: everything is recorded and saved, and you are a potential source of profit regardless of how uninteresting and ordinary you are. There is no way to keep your head down, no way to attain the anonymity that I feel makes up part of the bargain we make with the city.

-- TheodoreSmith - 17 Feb 2009

I agree with Ted that your first point neglects to consider that the rational city dweller does not feel that she has already ceded her identity to the multitudes. I think that the difference between the city dweller and the country dweller is that the country dweller believes that the data about him will be aggregated -- he knows he will be recognized when he goes to the store, the bar or to get a haircut. The city dweller does not -- she never expects the masses to recreate the actions of her day.

I think the instinct is right: regulating spaces to regulate privacy makes sense in the country setting, but must be rethought in the city. In the country we can not expect privacy in public spaces, and "the rush to cities at the end of the industrial revolution has fundamentally reshaped our ideas about privacy in the 21st century": we believe in the city that we are effectively private even when our private life leaks through the thin apartment walls. But I think you stray when you claim that the realignment is that we "ceded it to the multitudes long ago." In our new conception, we still expect privacy because we expect no one to care.

-- JustinColannino - 17 Feb 2009

Between Ted and Justin’s comments, I think we’re experiencing a confusion of terminology. There is a difference between “privacy” and “anonymity.” Just because they can, and often do, overlap, does not make them coterminus with one another. I think that the city/country dichotomy presents this paradox: When I am in New York, everything I do is anonymous, but nothing is private. In Wyoming (or the perhaps idealized Wyoming that I present in the paper), nothing is anonymous (everyone knows your name), but more things are private. This dichotomy, I think, perhaps partly explains the difference between our theoretical city and country dwellers. Ted, you noted that anonymity is part of the bargain we make with the city, but I think this is less a bargain and more a bait and switch. This goes to Justin’s point—because we are anonymous in the city, we don’t realize how much privacy we have “ceded to the multitudes.” That is to say, we don’t recognize how much the aggregation of data (Justin’s point) and the internet (Ted’s point) have made even our theoretically anonymous conduct non-private and, of course, commercially valuable. By contrast, spaces which disallow anonymity force us to be more thoughtful at least, if not more militant, about policing our privacy, because we cannot escape the fact that our conduct comes back to us and our identities in a fundamental way.

You both pointed out how our expectations of others “not caring” may have also reshaped our expectations, and I don’t disagree. But again, I think this may go back to the difference between what is anonymous and what is private. I still maintain that we have ceded privacy to the multitudes as an inevitable effect of urbanization, but I will concede that our ideas about anonymity have perhaps blinded us to some extent to that loss. Part of my point in this essay was that certain spaces force you to feel very acutely what constitutes your identity (killing the deer verses buying soup cans at the mega mart) and therefore alters your conception of what it means to protect that identity. Anonymity, the kind a city provides, cuts you off from that link--- you don’t feel your actions are you and so the fact that they aren’t private means much less than if your space forced you to constantly recognize what ultimately constitutes your identity.

-- DanaDelger - 17 Feb 2009

Offline, I expressed to Dana my frustration about moving the discussion towards the definitions of privacy and anonymity, as I think these are very complex subjects. I will try to dodge the issue by embracing Dana's distinction. I think she is right that if a conception of privacy does not encompass anonymity, total or partial, then partial anonymity in the city has supplanted the social need for privacy in the move from the country to the city, with potentially disastrous consequences.

I think the difference of opinion between the two of us centers around Dana's assertion that "when [the city dweller] realizes that [the government] want more than to enter his home but his soul, it hardly matters—he ceded it to the multitudes long ago." I think that this misstates what happens. I do not give my soul in a conversation, a trip to the grocery store, an argument on the street or searching for alternate means of contraception. It is wrested from me when the data are put together in a dossier and conclusions reached about who I am. The taking of the soul is not about privacy or anonymity, but about the harm of data aggregation (or is it about all three?).

Data aggregation can be done in either the city or the country. It is easier to lose yourself by accident in the (or our hypothetical) country, where everyone knows who you are and there is a clear, space-drawn line between public and private. This is what we have, for the purposes of this conversation, been calling privacy-if you cross that line, you risk losing control of your soul. But in the city, it must be taken from you, collected systematically from places you shop, by people following you or from microphones in convenient places. This is what we have been calling anonymity, and it is a much more blurry line. Both of these concepts protect your soul. Dana and I agree here too (see her second paragraph in response, above), what I think we disagree about is the consequences.

I do not think that the city dweller thinks that she has opened herself to the harm because she is more observed than she was when she lived in the country. I do not believe it any more than I believe that by tearing up my diary (if i kept one) into 1,000,000 pieces and scattering them to the wind, I could expect someone to know what I wrote about on the day before my wedding.

-- JustinColannino - 18 Feb 2009

I think, as so often happens between you and I, Justin, that we actually mostly agree, but are getting tripped up in terminology. Dodging the anonymity/privacy bullet for another time, however, I'm still compelled to address this point: "I do not give my soul in a conversation, a trip to the grocery store, an argument on the street or searching for alternate means of contraception." I don't disagree at all, in fact, with your contention that aggregation of data poses an incredibly serious harm to your identity. But I think you're missing a subtler point from my essay (and as its author, I am probably responsible for you missing this point). In the second part of my essay, I am arguing that urban spaces help create precisely the attitude you embody in the quotation above: that is, that the mundanities of what you do, aren't you, and so don't need to be protected. You say they only need to be protected in aggregation, because this is the point at which people can draw conclusions about you from the data, and I may or may not agree, but my point goes in another direction. It is that different spaces can teach us different things about what each of those individual actions (having the conversation, going to the store) mean in terms of identity. You say you don't cede your soul in your what you buy at the market, but I believe that you do, and moreover, I believe (and my essay argues) that the reason you and I feel differently about this is that I grew up in a space that fostered privacy and you grew up in one that didn't. Part of the reason, I think, that you don't feel any of these things, absent aggregation, represent you is because you live in a space which removes your responsibility for them. You don't have to catch your own fish or make your own contraception (please, god, don't try that)-- but if you did, you might feel that each discrete act represented a part of you, of your identity and your soul, and thus you would feel more inclined to protect that against intrusion, even where the threat of data aggregation was less pertinent.

Is that responsive to your argument? We clearly disagree at least on one point, which is fine, but I worry that my work wasn't clear enough if this is the disagreement than we are having.

-- DanaDelger - 18 Feb 2009

Is there an objective difference between buying a can of soup in Wyoming and a can of soup in NYC? Or is your point that the difference is only subjective and that the subjective experience informs our notions of privacy alone?

-- KateVershov - 21 Feb 2009

So I was not sure I disagreed, but now I think I do. I don't think we can dodge the terminology bullet. To use the language we used in class, we may differentiate between secrecy (people knowing the substance of what you are doing; what Dana is calling privacy) and anonymity (people connecting you with your actions). To use class terminology, these are both components of what we call privacy.

I think my problem is with the fundamental assertion that city life fosters more indifference or acceptance of loss of privacy and identity. As Justin implied, in a small town, you lose your anonymity, and so secrecy becomes more important. In the city (accepting Dana's argument), this balance seems to reverse. If we may make the assumption that modern data aggregation techniques strip both your secrecy (where you go, what you buy) and your anonymity, I don't see why the city would necessarily foster more indifference towards loss of privacy. In the big city, you assume you have anonymity, which is easily stripped from you. In the country, you treasure your secrecy, which again may be easily taken away. Both are fallacies: they are just fallacies of a different kind.

It is certainly true that there may be less opportunity to lose ones privacy in the small town than there is the city; if you are fishing and killing deer, it is less essential that you deal with the web of technology that allows tracking and aggregation of identity. I would also expect that there be less surveillance infrastructure in small towns (with the notable exception of Walmart). While the existence of the threat may be diminished, I am not convinced that the attitudes are inherently less problematic. I certainly think it may be easier to see the risks posed by loss of secrecy than the risks posed by loss of anonymity: every EULA on the internet is a testament to loss of secrecy, while few people know how often google follows them home. This would not be a point about how attitudes towards privacy were strengthened by self reliance, but rather a point about how the dangers people look for are different, and about how one may be more apparent given the structure of surveillance and the internet.

I hope this was at least a little clear, and I am sorry it was so long.

-- TheodoreSmith - 22 Feb 2009

It’s clear to me both from Ted and Kate’s comments and from some offline discussions with Justin that there’s some confusion between the substance of my argument and the symbolic references I use to make it. Of course, as the author, I’m responsible for that confusion so in further drafts, I’ll have to think about how to avoid it, but for now let me try to clarify. I’m not actually making an argument about the difference between city and rural life or New York and Wyoming; I use those examples only as symbolic reference because, unlike the difference between city and rural life, I, and I think I can safely assume, everyone else in the class (barring time machines) has no intuitive personal experience about the difference between pre-Industrialized and urbanized society. That is really my argument--- that the urbanization of the late 18th century entirely shifted our paradigm around privacy both because the very nature of living in space with others inherently changes what you think of as private and because urbanized society allows specialization, which in turn allows people to cede responsibility (and thus privacy) for the everyday activities of their lives. While I think that living in Wyoming or other similarly rural spaces does affect our notions of privacy for the reasons just noted (and I’ve certainly argued as much in the comments), this isn’t the crux of my argument at all. It’s really only the most attenuated example of what is actually a historical argument about the impact of urbanization, writ large, on privacy.

On Ted’s point (and also Justin’s from offline) that “I think my problem is with the fundamental assertion that city life fosters more indifference or acceptance of loss of privacy and identity,” I want to first note that my argument is more properly read as “ urbanization fosters more indifference or acceptance of loss of privacy and identity,” as that, and not “city life” is my fundamental assertion. Of course, even a more proper reading of my argument doesn’t mean you’ll agree with it. It seemed to me, writing this essay, that this first point about changes in privacy as a result of urbanization was mostly self evident and almost entirely intuitive. Apparently it was not. I hesitate to offer another example, because I seem to have a problem with giving modern and personal examples to represent my historical and societal argument, but I will just suggest that the intuitive feeling of my argument is captured by anyone when they go to their shared college dorm room for the first time or in the first time you share a bed with another person. In those moments, the mere presence of another person shapes your expectation of privacy; even the inviolable privacy of your sleep is acted upon by that other body next to you, even if it, too, is sleeping. The presence of bodies matters, and living in a world that has been fundamentally altered by the piling of bodies into those epicenters of gravity we call cities seems to me to have to affect what you think of as privacy. If you don’t agree with that, well, I guess you just don’t agree. This seems so intuitive to me that I don’t know how else to argue it.

I do want to suggest, though, that perhaps part of the reason you all seem to be having a hard time with it is that you seem to be thinking primarily of my argument through the individual lens (a problem I am responsible for--- I recognize my essay juxtaposes the historical with the personal). Ted, you seem to be looking for evidence of the paradigm shift created by urbanization as written on individual bodies, but that is not at all what I am suggesting. My point is that the shift has already taken place. We all, in New York, Wyoming and everywhere else, live in an urbanized world. The Industrial Revolution has come and gone--- we live now only in its wake. I don't argue necessarily that a man moves from Wyoming to New York and suddenly loses all notion of his privacy, though I think to a certain extent changes in his ideas about privacy are inevitable as a result of such a move. My argument, more broadly, is that urbanization, the mass movement of people to cities, changed the basic underpinnings of privacy for society as a whole, not necessarily in or over the lifetime of one man. The experience of a person who moves from a rural to urban environment today is only some dwarfed Doppelganger of massive societal changes that have already taken place. I posited those experiences in the essay as a way to make more salient my point about urbanization; I’m sorry if they were confusing or led the reader astray from my argument.

I hope this was responsive, Ted, but it is predicated a bit on how I assumed you were reading my paper. If I was wrong, correct me, and I can try to respond differently.

-- DanaDelger - 26 Feb 2009

Dana, I enjoyed your essay. You might be interested in some empirical evidence that might back you up: "urban, densely populated provinces have higher rates of Facebook adoption than rural, sparsely populated provinces."

Perhaps another way of explaining the puzzle lies in the fact that one might join an anonymity-shedding social network in order to maintain social ties with others who do the same. This would suggest geometric growth of social networks where one has a larger social network to begin with, as a result of peer pressure and ill-perceived costs of privacy until one is already locked in.

-- RickSchwartz - 9 Mar 2009

  • I must say I think everyone was rather long-winded about this one, if scrupulously polite, which I should learn to imitate. I think everyone is right, though everyone forgot to say how well-written this is.

  • As it happens, totally by accident, I think my terminology is right: this essay raises all the aspects of privacy: secrecy, anonymity and (you all forgot to say) autonomy. It also raises Frederick Jackson Turner: it's the frontier you're is writing about, and I think your invocation of its values is as clear (and as clearly differentiated from what the frontier always understands so viscerally about "city ways," which is that the latrine is always too close to the well) as can be. "Self- sufficiency makes privacy" is as basic a relation, where "privacy" means "autonomy" in my nomenclature, as you can get. I'm not sure whether your first deer is quite as big a moment in American privacy as when Thoreau pretended to eat raw woodchuck (well, after all, there was nobody around to see whether he did or not), but I agree that you've properly evoked the absolutely crucial environmental meaning of privacy that comes of moving away when you can smell the smoke from another man's chimney. Here we breathe nothing else all the time. Interdependency, here, is the background to the struggle for privacy. Most people's issue with you seemed to be that you said the struggle here had been conceded. This they objected to, as though the mere fact of a window, let alone a thousand or ten thousand windows looking in at your window isn't in itself the concession.

  • At any rate, I don't think this needs anything. What could be done, you did.



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