Wednesday, August 22, 2007

What IS Privacy?

I would like to thank BobApril, regular commenter at my brother's blog, Dispatches, for allowing me to cross-post this article on privacy. This will be one of two guest posts on privacy, from very different angles. BobApril is a military guy, who often adds an interesting insight to many conversations.

The right to privacy is much in the news of late. Apparently this right, while not explicitly stated in the Constitution, underpins Roe v. Wade. It’s the main reason for the uproar about President Bush’s authorization of wiretaps without warrants. But what are we talking about, exactly? Let’s look at some examples. In which case or cases is privacy being violated, and in which is it not?

1. A husband and wife are prosecuted for sodomy for consensual acts perfomed in the privacy of their bedroom.

2. An unmarried man and woman are prosecuted for sodomy and adultery for consensual acts performed in the privacy of one of their bedrooms.

3. A married man and a woman not his wife are prosecuted for sodomy and adultery for consensual acts performed in the privacy of a motel room.

4. A man and another man are prosecuted for sodomy for consensual acts performed in the privacy of one of their bedrooms.

5. A married man and a female prostitute are prosecuted for sodomy, adultery, and prostitution for consensual acts performed for money, in the privacy of a motel room.

6. A husband is prosecuted for sodomy, battery, spousal abuse, and rape for acts he forced on his wife in the privacy of their bedroom.

I will grant that in most of those cases the prosecutor is going to have a heck of a time gathering evidence – but let’s assume that all of them were caught red…um, handed, in the various acts while the police were searching the house under a legal warrant for an unrelated offense. That (unlikely) circumstance would make it all admissable in court…and under laws still on the books in some states, ALL of those cases are illegal!

Let’s try another one.

1. A government agency records a phone conversation, without a warrant, including the following sentence: “I plan to get bombed at TGI Fridays in Pentagon City this weekend.”

2. A government agency records a phone conversation, without a warrant, including the following sentence: “I’m planting the bomb this Friday in the Pentagon. Stay away from the city this weekend.”

I don’t know about you, but in one of those cases, I’d really sort of like to find out the NSA was listening…but isn’t it still a violation of privacy? I’d really like to find a way to define privacy that would provide for reasonable violations for appropriate causes, but still protect me from unreasonable invasions. I just cannot for the life of me imagine a way to word a definition to control those limits.

For that matter, I have some question about the whole need for privacy, at least in terms of government intrusion. After all, if I’m not breaking any laws, what do I care if someone knows what I’m doing? Obviously, I don’t want it all released to the media, or posted on the Internet, or whatever…but as long as my personal information is used ONLY to prosecute legitimate crimes, I can’t see a real problem with having a camera in my bedroom, or attached to my arm, or whatever – 24 hour surveillance. After all, if everyone is being watched, that serves to PROTECT me from any number of crimes that might affect me – from terrorist bombs, muggers in dark alleys, even idiots who run red lights.

I really believe that most people’s fear of invasion of privacy stems from their suspicion or solid knowledge that some of the things they do are at least immoral, and probably illegal. In some cases, I believe that means the law should be changed, so that people can do what they want, as long as no one else is harmed without their consent – such as the laws against prostitution, drug use, and driving without a seat belt. In other cases, the world would be a better place if people could not get away with their crimes – such as rape, selling substandard prescription drugs, or driving with small children without child seats.

If our laws were written to protect us from others, instead of protecting us from ourselves, we wouldn’t need privacy. Since they’re not…I’d like to keep my privacy intact. I just wish I knew for sure what I’m asking for.



10 comments:

Icepick said...

"I really believe that most people’s fear of invasion of privacy stems from their suspicion or solid knowledge that some of the things they do are at least immoral, and probably illegal."

No, most people don't want their privacy invaded because (1) most of us don't like having someone constantly looking over our shoulder, and (2) a good many things that people do are neither illegal or immoral, but are embarrassing. Would anyone really like their habits on the toilet monitored?

Beth said...

Surveillance in public places is already happening, look at the parking lot shots at Wal Mart that implicate parents beating their kids in the backseat. Does it bother me that I am being watched as I put my bags in the car? Not in the least, if it catches someone harming a child. Of course that parent could just wait till they got home if they know they could be prosecuted if caught on tape.

I don't think out toilet habits are being monitored.

BobApril said...

Icepick - like I said, I wouldn't mind IF I was sure it would only be used to prosecute crimes against other people. Even if they're recording me on the toilet. As things stand, though, I agree - we can't at present trust anyone not to misuse such power. Especially our government.

Beth - are you sure? Even in public restrooms? I've heard here and there that some department store dressing rooms are monitored...think about that next time you're trying on a dress.

Icepick said...

As things stand, though, I agree - we can't at present trust anyone not to misuse such power. Especially our government.

I would rephrase that to say "Especially ANY government."

DuWayne Brayton said...

Beth -

The problem with that mentality, is that it makes all of the surveillance that comes up easier to justify. Ultimately, there are a lot of justifications for all sorts of surveillance. Traffic cams, cameras on buildings around town, cameras in the potty. By your logic, it would make perfect sense to put a camera in every living room, every bedroom, anywhere that someone might beat their child. After all, the vast majority of abusers, never abuse in public.

icepick -

I would second that. I still have my discomfort, but I am far more comfortable with Google tracking what they might market to me, than the government doing the same. I actually like the idea of having adverts targeted to what I might actually want, than the constant barrage of crap that I have no interest in. I still have my discomfort, but it's discomfort about what might be done with that information, rather than what it is intended for.

Beth said...

I don't think cameras everywhere are pratical or proper. Sometimes you just need someone with a suspicion that could help a child or anyone abused.

It also depends on the intent of the surveillence, such as for public safety or to deter theft. I can't see where a bathroom camera could be justified for any of these good reasons.

DuWayne Brayton said...

The point is, where do you stop putting up cameras? Especially using your example of child abuse, most abuse happens in the privacy of the home. So the logical place to put the cameras would thus be the home.

I would note that I am not singularly minded in this. Indeed, I have very mixed feelings about it. A good example is a proposition for public housing that I read about years ago. It involved building the housing to skirt an entire city block. In the center of the block is an outdoor common area, that is entirely cut off from the outside. The only way to it is from inside the housing. Part of the reduction in cost is to have video surveillance of all common areas, as well as rotating shifts of residents monitoring the feeds and walking around cleaning up the common areas and keeping an eye on things.

The other surveillance is the requirement that residents carry their key card everywhere they go and that guests carry one at all times. It contains an RFID chip that helps monitor where everyone is at any given time. Wherever they go, they pass by sensors that log where people are.

On the one hand, I am a huge supporter of minimal, yet livable public housing. Such heavy surveillance would go a long way towards making it work. Having residents in charge of actually monitoring the feeds goes a long ways towards making it more acceptable. On the other hand, there is a lot of room for serious abuse.

It also depends on the intent of the surveillence, such as for public safety or to deter theft. I can't see where a bathroom camera could be justified for any of these good reasons.

First, the intent doesn't matter. No matter what the intent is, it is an open field for abuse.

Bathrooms are a huge gap in managing theft in stores. They go a long ways toward managing the problem, but it's imperfect. A great example is people who will get there hands on smaller items that have RFID, anti-theft devices. A person can put them in their pants or shirt, go into the bathroom and remove the chip so it won't set off an alarm when they leave the store. Or they can simply better situate the items they are stealing, so they can get it out of the store.

Beth said...

As with many things, the cost vs. benefit needs to be weighed. Sure there can be abuse, but should we not use surveillence in proper areas because there might be abuse? And consider what harmful things will continue to happen unpunished if we had no surveillence?

As for the whole bathroom scenario, I don't think there are many stores with small but high ticket prices that don't have the item locked. Bottom line, if someone wants to steal something chances are no system is foolproof.

DuWayne Brayton said...

Beth -

But what are the "proper" areas? In many locations, you have surveillance in public squares, on intersections and even on public sidewalks. All of this can be justified, all of it can be abused. In Portland there is talk about putting surveillance in public parks.

I have been trying to find the link, but have been unable to track it down. It's to a site that manufacture and sells high-tech military/law enforcement devices. They have a camera that was developed ostensibly for the military, that creates imaging that can create pictures and, I believe, even video, of what is happening inside a building, through the walls. The police can't get a warrant? No problem, just bust out the super camera, to get a look inside.

As for cameras in bathrooms, you did ask why they it could be justified. No, no system is perfect, but putting cameras in the bathrooms would go a long way to closing a huge gap. And the items are out there. CDs, DVDs, cameras, OTC pharmaceuticals, to name a few. Sure, the really high end stuff is locked up, but the midrange is where stores take the biggest losses. All of those items are big ones for bathrooms to come in handy. Have you ever wondered why so many stores don't have public bathrooms? Loss prevention is a huge motivator for stores to just not provide facilities, drug stores, gift shops, record stores and the like, don't have bathrooms for precisely that reason.

Beth said...

Wow, cameras that see through buildings? That is a disturbing thought.