Ministry Of Truth Helpfully Redefines Privacy

[ Posted Monday, November 12th, 2007 – 16:54 UTC ]

A United States Ministry of Truth spokesman proudly unveiled the new official definition of "privacy" today, on the heels of their successful campaign to redefine "torture." The new meaning of the word "privacy" will now be (according to MiniTru): "the secure feeling citizens get by knowing that their government is collecting and protecting their personal data." Old definitions of privacy will no longer be operative.

The MiniTru spokesman was quite enthusiastic about the definition rollout. "For generations Americans have been burdened by the responsibility of guarding their own privacy," he said. "This was too great a task for the public to adequately control, so the logical answer was to have the government take over this onerous work, to better serve each citizen's private life. No longer will Americans have to worry about their own privacy, because now Big Brother will take care of it for them."

OK, I made those quotes up, I admit. But I'm sad to say I didn't make up the story itself. Both the AP and the New York Times have stories about principal deputy director of national intelligence Donald Kerr's recent speech [PDF transcript] to the Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. Here are some of the quotes from Kerr:

"Our job now is to engage in a productive debate, which focuses on privacy as a component of appropriate levels of security and public safety."

. . .

"Too often, privacy has been equated with anonymity, but in our interconnected and wireless world, anonymity -- or the appearance of anonymity -- is quickly becoming a thing of the past."

When asked to elaborate on the "privacy does not equal anonymity" implications, Kerr responded:

It's a really good question because, in fact, it's a personal question that everyone, in a way, has to answer for themselves. But I think today, you know, I'm willing to call up, pick the vendor of your choice. I'm willing to share my credit card number and expiration date with a person I have never seen, have no idea whether they've been vetted or not. I've certainly been able to get past being anonymous in that transaction. And of course, you multiply that by all of the transaction [sic] that you're involved in every day.

I was taken by a thing that happened to me at the FBI, where I also had electronic surveillance as part of my responsibility. And people were very concerned that the ability to intercept emails was coming into play. And they were saying, well, we just can't have federal employees able to touch our message traffic. And the fact that, for that federal employee, it was a felony to misuse the data -- it was punishable by five years in jail and a $100,000 fine, which I don't believe has ever happened -- but they were perfectly willing for a green-card holder at an ISP who may or may have not have been an illegal entrant to the United States to handle their data. It struck me as an anomalous situation.

So this is not something where groupthink works for an answer. I think all of us have to really take stock of what we already are willing to give up, in terms of anonymity, but what safeguards we want in place to be sure that giving that up doesn't empty our bank account or do something equally bad elsewhere.

Kerr gets bonus points for using a Newspeak-y term "groupthink" in there, and for gratuitous immigrant-bashing as well.

Not content to rest on his laurels, he somewhat bizarrely took a swipe at Tonto, while explaining that we're all just going to have to get used to his new definition of privacy:

Too often, privacy has been equated with anonymity; and it's an idea that is deeply rooted in American culture. The Long Ranger [sic -- I'm sure he meant to say "Lone Ranger"] wore a mask but Tonto didn't seem to need one even though he did the dirty work for free. You'd think he would probably need one even more. But in our interconnected and wireless world, anonymity -- or the appearance of anonymity -- is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Anonymity results from a lack of identifying features. Nowadays, when so much correlated data is collected and available -- and I'm just talking about profiles on MySpace, Facebook, YouTube here -- the set of identifiable features has grown beyond where most of us can comprehend. We need to move beyond the construct that equates anonymity with privacy and focus more on how we can protect essential privacy in this interconnected environment.

Protecting anonymity isn't a fight that can be won. Anyone that's typed in their name on Google understands that. Instead, privacy, I would offer, is a system of laws, rules, and customs with an infrastructure of Inspectors General, oversight committees, and privacy boards on which our intelligence community commitment is based and measured. And it is that framework that we need to grow and nourish and adjust as our cultures change.

I think people here, at least people close to my age, recognize that those two generations younger than we are have a very different idea of what is essential privacy, what they would wish to protect about their lives and affairs. And so, it's not for us to inflict one size fits all. It's a need to have it be adjustable to the needs of local societies as they evolve in our country. Eventually, we can only hope that people’s perceptions -- in Hollywood and elsewhere -- will catch up.

So because I've used Google once in my life, I have agreed to have the United States government tap my email and phone?


But seriously, this is the type of person who is supposed to be in charge of protecting privacy while "going after terrorists," and his complete inability to see the difference between a transaction between a citizen and a private company and the government's ability to listen in to that conversation. This is terrifying. That someone with such a basic lack of the principles involved is high up in the chain of command at National Intelligence, and is apparently informing the citizenry of the "new" and "improved" definition of privacy: Private is Public. Anonymous is Evil.

Towards the end of the AP article, the Electronic Freedom Foundation gives their response, which I couldn't agree with more:

Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group that defends online free speech, privacy and intellectual property rights, said Kerr's argument ignores both privacy laws and American history.

"Anonymity has been important since the Federalist Papers were written under pseudonyms," Opsahl said. "The government has tremendous power: the police power, the ability to arrest, to detain, to take away rights. Tying together that someone has spoken out on an issue with their identity is a far more dangerous thing if it is the government that is trying to tie it together."

Opsahl also said Kerr ignores the distinction between sacrificing protection from an intrusive government and voluntarily disclosing information in exchange for a service.

"There is something fundamentally different from the government having information about you than private parties," he said. "We shouldn't have to give people the choice between taking advantage of modern communication tools and sacrificing their privacy."

"It's just another 'trust us, we're the government,' " he said.

Or, more properly, Trust Big Brother. Big Brother loves you!


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


One Comment on “Ministry Of Truth Helpfully Redefines Privacy”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    Once again the government tries to take advantage of a situtation to lower the standard on "reasonable expectation of privacy" - I can feel myself slipping and sliding down that slope.


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