So What is Privacy Anyway?

by on November 11, 2007 · 10 comments

An Arsticle by Ken Fisher reviews a recent talk given by Donald Kerr, principal deputy director of National Intelligence, who is second in command to Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell.

In a recent speech, Kerr fumbled around with privacy and related concepts, concluding in Ken’s (and an AP reporter’s) opinion that he’s trying to redefine privacy in somewhat Orwellian ways.

Here’s the meat of what Kerr said:

Too often, privacy has been equated with anonymity; and it’s an idea that is deeply rooted in American culture. The Long [sic] 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.

* * *

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.

A productive debate would indeed be welcome, and it should start with defined terms. Most people – and evidently Kerr – don’t know exactly what they mean when they say the word “privacy.”

Privacy is not anonymity, though the two interrelate. Privacy is the subjective condition people enjoy when they have power to control information about themselves and when they exercise that power consistent with their interests and values. Perhaps the most extensive formal exposition I’ve given on this is in my Understanding Privacy paper, and I’ve discussed it in a number of writings and speeches transcribed on Privacilla.

Anonymity exists when someone is acting in a way that limits the availability of identifiers to others. You could say it’s a product of keeping your identifiers private, I suppose. The result is that information produced during transactions is not personally identifiable. It cannot be correlated back to the individual and so it helps the individual maintain privacy. But anonymity is not privacy.

A major flaw in Kerr’s thinking has to do with how he treats identification as endlessly transferable. “If you’ve identified yourself to your ISP,” he appears to think, “you’ve identified yourself to me.” The folks in his world may think that way, but that’s not the way the rest of us look at it, and it’s not consistent with a sound interpretation of the Fourth Amendment or life in a free society.

We routinely identify ourselves to certain parties – give up privacy in our identifiers to them – without giving up this information to the world. We may be identified to some, but we are anonymous as to all others. Thus, we have privacy.

These concepts are not easy. Kerr’s invitation to a productive debate is welcome, but it won’t be productive until he steps back from assumptions about privacy that are designed to serve the intelligence community in its zealous pursuit of national security, but not the full range of the American public’s interests.

  • http://www.emergentchaos.com Adam

    Jim, I’m surprised. It’s only since 1984 that the government is allowed to tell us how to use words, and I’d have thought that having the spies redefine our language for us would have resulted in…different thoughts from you.

    Adam

  • http://www.emergentchaos.com Adam

    Jim, I’m surprised. It’s only since 1984 that the government is allowed to tell us how to use words, and I’d have thought that having the spies redefine our language for us would have resulted in…different thoughts from you.

    Adam

  • v

    He has a point. If you walk into a bookstore, you don’t wear a mask. You expect people to look at you as you present yourself, see your name on your credit card, look at what you purchase, etc.

    What you don’t except them to do is write all that down and share it with other parties.

    So in a sense, he’s right, but I have a feeling that his ideas about what laws and customs should apply are far looser than mine.

  • v

    He has a point. If you walk into a bookstore, you don’t wear a mask. You expect people to look at you as you present yourself, see your name on your credit card, look at what you purchase, etc.

    What you don’t except them to do is write all that down and share it with other parties.

    So in a sense, he’s right, but I have a feeling that his ideas about what laws and customs should apply are far looser than mine.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    Sorry, Adam. Coming to this as I did at the end of a weekend, I guess I didn’t get as cranky about it as I probably should have. Can’t be outraged all the time! Though the basis for perma-outrage is there . . .

    More important officials have gotten it even more wrong than Kerr did, as you may have seen me document in a post called Chertoff Doesn’t Get Privacy Either.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    Sorry, Adam. Coming to this as I did at the end of a weekend, I guess I didn’t get as cranky about it as I probably should have. Can’t be outraged all the time! Though the basis for perma-outrage is there . . .

    More important officials have gotten it even more wrong than Kerr did, as you may have seen me document in a post called Chertoff Doesn’t Get Privacy Either.

  • Reader in Houston

    Kerr, notes the press service story, is 68. He’s from the generation that gave us many wars and from a culture that leaned far more politically conservative than most folks in the generations that followed him.

    Kerr is part of the “old guard”. Most of the twentysomethings he effectively dings for their use of MySpace, Facebook and Google would most certainly not be able to relate to him or his values – they would not trust him, and why should they? His point of view is that you do what the government tells you to do and to never question. That’s what the majority of folks in his age bracket believe, and that’s how they act.

    At most, this guy has another 20 years. The rest of us behind him may have to live with the effects created by his decisions and policies. Think about that before dismissing his comments.

  • Reader in Houston

    Kerr, notes the press service story, is 68. He’s from the generation that gave us many wars and from a culture that leaned far more politically conservative than most folks in the generations that followed him.

    Kerr is part of the “old guard”. Most of the twentysomethings he effectively dings for their use of MySpace, Facebook and Google would most certainly not be able to relate to him or his values – they would not trust him, and why should they? His point of view is that you do what the government tells you to do and to never question. That’s what the majority of folks in his age bracket believe, and that’s how they act.

    At most, this guy has another 20 years. The rest of us behind him may have to live with the effects created by his decisions and policies. Think about that before dismissing his comments.

  • deadzone

    Wow we need to get some younger people in office! These old farts that know next to nothing about new technology are going to ruin it for all of us.

    It’s ironic really. This is coming from an entity that routinely will act in the most secretive manner possible and purports this to be for our own good. I don’t want to be anonymous – I just want to know that my personal information is going to be safe and that it’s not going to be used in a manner that it should not be to either harm me or someone else.

  • deadzone

    Wow we need to get some younger people in office! These old farts that know next to nothing about new technology are going to ruin it for all of us.

    It’s ironic really. This is coming from an entity that routinely will act in the most secretive manner possible and purports this to be for our own good. I don’t want to be anonymous – I just want to know that my personal information is going to be safe and that it’s not going to be used in a manner that it should not be to either harm me or someone else.

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