Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

-- ZebulunJohnson - 19 Sep 2017


As a child, I often went to hidden places at quiet times to read books my parents had deemed “inappropriate” for me, and I never worried about the book revealing that I had broken the rules. At age ten, I applied the same logic to the internet, and I learned that the computer tattles.

I’ll spare the details of what websites I accessed or how my parents punished me, because the import of the story comes from my reaction to the punishment: I knew I would repeat my actions, so I learned how my parents had caught me, and how to avoid their surveillance in the future. Similarly, a few years later my ISP sent a letter warning of the consequences of digital piracy. Again, I knew I would repeat my actions, so I learned how to prevent surveillance.

I learned how to hide my digital presence because not hiding directly impacted my life. I learned not because I cared about human freedom and despotism, but because as a child and as a teenager I held a deep passion for porn and pirated video games. Such noble pursuits required privacy.

To instill the importance of privacy habits into our society, individuals must view privacy habits as necessary in their daily lives. A personal fear of surveillance would create this necessity. A cheap and intuitive form of private spying would create this personal fear, and would therefore counterintuitively promote good privacy habits.

Why Individuals Need to Learn Good Privacy Habits, and Why Individuals Will Not Learn Good Privacy Habits

Unlike other rights, the onus of exercising and protecting the right to privacy rests on individuals. Corporations derive profit from data mining individuals, and governments spend billions each year collecting all possible data. To these entities, absent an unlikely shift in governmental or corporate policy, the benefits of data collection outweigh any notion of individual privacy. Because of this, individuals cannot rely on any third party for the provision of privacy protections. It is up to individuals to provide these protections for themselves, through learning and practicing good privacy habits.

Most Americans agree with the importance of data privacy, yet a threat to the abstract ideal of human dignity provides little motivation for individuals as most humans primarily concern themselves with tangible problems which immediately affect their lives. Mass surveillance does not have a physical impact on the lives of individuals, and individuals can only perceive such abstract harms with difficulty. While couching data privacy in terms of human freedom captures the imagination, comparing modern mass surveillance to the surveillance regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia evokes shivers of unease, and both lead to widespread agreement about the importance of data privacy, such agreement rarely prove an impetus to action. How could it? If Americans know one thing, we know that America fought and won against these ultimate evils of a dark past. Although many worry, few believe in the possibility of a tyrannical America.

How to Force People to Change

Individuals have difficulty feeling the effects of mass surveillance, larger societal entities have no incentive to curb the dangers of such effects, and even those who agree with the importance of privacy protections fail to take action. In this world, in order to make individuals adopt good privacy habits, we must give individuals a reason to adopt these privacy habits.

Parents have an incentive to monitor their children’s activities on their network. Non-parents have an incentive to monitor their network for unauthorized activity. Many people are voyeurs, and would love to see every bit that goes through their home router. Imagine if a mother of four could simply by tap on the screen on her favorite IProduct and have her children’s internet usage in front of her, beautifully presented and intuitively organized. Imagine if an individual could install this in his home, and see every message sent by his flatmate. Imagine if you head to an acquaintance’s place for dinner, and you’re uncertain if your host monitors every packet sent during your stay. Imagine that world! What would you do?

Personally, I’d quickly learn to prevent my information from reaching outside hands. I’d learn to browse the internet in such a way that my friends and family could not see what I say or do. I’d adopt tools to prevent prying eyes from seeing my actions. I’d do so not because I care about freedom of the press, human dignity, privacy, or any of those worthwhile ideals that captures the spirit but not the hands. I’d learn because I would have to learn, because the threat would be immediate and the danger would be palpable. By learning how hide my browsing habits from my router, I would learn to hide from my ISP. Selfishness and fear would drive my privacy habits. The technology needed to do this is not that complex. First, combine a plug-in server with a router to log every action taken on your network by every device on your network. Second, create an application that analyzes, organizes, and presents the data in a beautiful and intuitive way to the network owner. Do all of this without forcing the user to mess with any pesky router settings, CLI commands, or basic understanding of routing. Assuming a low price point, this product would have widespread appeal.

Personal spying will make the threat of mass surveillance material and real. People might not have anything to hide from the government, but they certainly have things to hide from their friends and family. If the surveillance is real and personal, if you don’t know if your brother or mother or friend or barista is watching you, then you will adapt. Make browsing the internet dangerous. Make every tweeted tweet, sent message, updated status, and accessed website accessible to someone the individual knows, and see how fast privacy tools are adopted.



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r1 - 19 Sep 2017 - 15:21:12 - ZebulunJohnson
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