Monday, November 12, 2007

Privacy for Government, Not Individuals

A frustratingly brief news report caught my eye this weekend, with headlines claiming a government official said Americans need to redefine privacy, so that it excludes ideas of anonymity in favor of safety and security. Late yesterday and early today, more information behind this story - more context - arrived and a version of the news report was in the Knox News Sentinel today

Still, the reports lacked the context of the comments from intelligence officer, Donald Kerr, deputy director of the national intelligence office. And after some searching, I did find the full text of Kerr's comments, which were made Oct 23rd at the 2007 GEOINT Symposium, sponsored by the Geospacial Intelligence Foundation.

You can read the full text of his comments here, and they are worth the time to read.

He makes several factual points about how technology has eliminated much anonymity for people today, citing trendy villains like MySpace and Facebook, or the shock of Googling your own name. Bank, cell phone, credit card records too, he says, provide vast amounts of personal info.

And truly, most folks also use 'discount cards' at the grocery store, membership cards at other retail outlets as part of a dedicated effort by business for many years to create databases to define you through your spending habits. And we have all received those tri-folded pamphlets from our banks and other agencies labeled Privacy Policy printed in letters so small an ant couldn't read it without a magnifying glass, and which usually provide the details of policies which seem intent on sharing personal info, not protecting it.

Kerr also cites continuing problems within government agencies which do not share info with each other, despite clear signs such changes are beneficial.

But what garnered press reports were comments made in his opening statement, such as:

"We really need to realize what a loaded word security really is.

When I’m at work, and throughout my day, security is safety, as a barrier against physical or emotional harm. When I go home at night,

security is privacy, as an expectation of freedom from unnecessary burdens. In the intelligence community, we have an obligation to protect both safety and privacy, and over the course of GEOINT 2007, as we talk about the hows of new technologies and tradecraft, I’d like to take a step back right now and talk about the whys.

Safety and privacy – it’s common thinking that, in order to have more safety, you get less privacy. I don’t agree with that. I work from the assumption that you need to have both. When we try to make it an either/or proposition, we’re bound to fail. You can be perfectly safe in a prison; but you certainly aren’t free. And you can be perfectly free in an anarchist society; but you certainly aren’t safe."


"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. This is work that the Office of the DNI has started to do, and must continue and make a high priority. This careful balance we need to strike, however, is nothing new. With the advent of telephones, we entered a new frontier that required careful balancing between safety and privacy. We faced this challenge again at the end of the ’70s in the aftermath of the Church-Pike Hearings. And now, in the era of new technologies, we have to work to continue to keep that balance, to earn that trust, and re-earn it every day through our actions. But we also have to be willing to reopen the laws and regulations that were based on technologies that existed 1978 and adjust them to the realities of 2007 and 2008."

It is certainly a complex issue here, and Kerr makes good points. But Kerr's failing, and that of many others, is to assume we no longer have privacy rights. Abdicating them is in fact vital to insuring acceptance that we have less and less privacy. Abdicating them in hopes of obtaining some magical national personal safety and security is likewise foolish.

A clear problem, however, is visible today as citizens casually accept the idea that government and corporations require more rights of privacy than individuals. It's become rather accepted that officials in government, locally and nationally, have the right to withhold information of all types in order to have "open discussion and debate of policy".

I noticed a report today on TennViews about a military contractor in Tennessee who is part of an investigation of trading sex for government contracts in Iraq. Most telling in the press reports of this story is how the military and government claimed the right to privacy:

The Air Force, through Capt. Ashley Norris of Hill AFB in Utah, said that because of privacy rules, it couldn't say when a service member had received a nonjudicial punishment, which can include a reprimand, house arrest, confinement to a military base, or a dock in pay.

The Justice Department said it would not discuss why it did not prosecute Remington."

It seems the more we abandon the ideas of individual privacy, the more we provide those rights to large bureaucracy.

1 comment:

  1. Your point is well taken.

    What we have is trend lines moving in opposite directions. Government -- at all levels -- is becoming more secretive and less open to inspection.

    For individuals, privacy in many aspects of live is certainly just an illusion unless you are willing to give up using the Internet, your cell phone, your credit cards and your discount cards.

    Truth be told, however, security had very little to do with most of this loss of privacy. People have willingly traded privacy for convenience, albeit not more of a choice was offered.

    The trend of government wanting to know more is disturbing because it's usually coupled with increased privacy of the activities around the collected information: Let us collect this information, but since it's sensitive private information, give us more secrecy seems to be argument.

    That's bad because then who watches the watchers?

    Our form of government is built upon personal freedom and open accountability of government. Technological advances haven't changed that.

    We are, I fear, losing the balance between crime-fighting and external security, and individual privacy and openness of government.