Everyone an Exhibitionist

R.A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Tue Jan 25 09:49:30 PST 2005


The Wall Street Journal

      January 25, 2005


Everyone an Exhibitionist

January 25, 2005; Page D12

In the debates over the Patriot Act and other antiterrorist measures, a
group of critics has emerged who claim that the entire realm of "privacy"
is in peril. But such privacy advocates, as we might call them, have a
problem even bigger than the government: the public.

Despite the advocates' warnings about Big Brother, Americans keep scarfing
up every new consumer convenience, regardless of how much personal
information is extracted in return. Cell phones, credit cards and the
Internet record our tastes, purchases and movements in minute detail. And
that computerized portrait does not stay put: Anyone who wants to sell us
yet more goodies more efficiently can buy it.

In fact, people give away personal information even when they don't have
to. In 1998, hundreds of thousands of magazine readers filled out an
eight-page, 700-item questionnaire about themselves just because Condi Nast
was curious about its subscribers' most intimate medical problems and
life-style choices. Americans clearly have a far more relaxed view of
privacy than the activists who claim to speak on their behalf.

Data collection gets more thorough and more common. Should we worry?

Yet the doomsayers carry on. In "No Place to Hide" (Free Press, 348 pages,
$26), Washington Post reporter Robert O'Harrow Jr. warns of a future in
which most external aspects of our lives end up in a database, potentially
available to corporations and law-enforcement officials. The cutting-edge
capacities he describes for tracking individuals -- biometric
face-scanners, say, or tiny radio transmitters -- are indeed sobering. But
he places too much emphasis on what can go wrong with data collection and
not enough on its enormous benefits. Despite its impressive scope, "No
Place to Hide" presents a lopsided view of the information revolution. In
fact, it offers a case study in how to generate a good privacy scare:
* Refusing to balance costs and benefits. Mr. O'Harrow presents every
horror story he can find about a data system gone awry. Florida authorities
bar an eligible voter from voting in the 2000 presidential election in
Florida after computers falsely identify him as a felon. Police accuse
three innocent women of murder because the surveillance camera on an ATM
had an inaccurate clock. (The error was discovered before prosecution.)

Such misfirings are regrettable, and every measure should be taken to avoid
them. But ATM cameras have much more often deterred or solved crimes than
generated false charges. The cost to democratic legitimacy of election
fraud outweighs the minimal risk that antifraud technology will
disenfranchise eligible voters. Virtually every modern discovery that
improves life -- from vaccines to automobiles -- carries risks; balancing
those risks against the technology's benefits is a skill that privacy
advocates seem to lack.
* Ignoring privacy safeguards. "No Place to Hide" chronicles the rise of
data warehousing companies, such as Axciom and ChoicePoint, that vacuum up
every piece of information about consumers that they can find. After 9/11,
these companies offered their databases to national-security agencies to
prevent another attack.

Since then, federal researchers have feverishly explored how to use such
information to track down future terrorists. Mr. O'Harrow worries that the
nascent partnership between data companies and the government will result
in a surveillance state. But computer experts are just as feverishly
exploring how to prevent the misuse of data, such as concealing individual
identities until evidence of a crime develops. Mr. O'Harrow is silent on
the promising technologies that aim to protect privacy while increasing
public safety.
* Living in a time warp. For privacy advocates, it's always 1968, when J.
Edgar Hoover's FBI was monitoring political activists with no check on its
power. But that FBI is dead and gone. In its place has arisen a risk-averse
bureau that, in the years preceding 9/11, worried more about avoiding
civil-liberties controversies than about preventing terrorism. The red tape
that now constrains intelligence-gathering makes a repeat of Hoover's
excesses unthinkable. Yet Mr. O'Harrow condemns the most imperative
post-9/11 reforms -- e.g., tearing down "the Wall" that once prevented
information-sharing within the antiterror community -- as a dangerous power
* Sticking with theory over facts. No self-respecting privacy Jeremiad can
do without a reference to the Panopticon, the imaginary prison conceived by
philosopher Jeremy Bentham that allows the constant surveillance of its
inmates. For privacy scolds, we are already imprisoned in the Panopticon,
thanks in part to anticrime video cameras on city streets and in private
buildings. According to Panopticon theory, surveillance produces a cowed,
inhibited society because, as Mr. O'Harrow puts it, "it chills culture and
stifles dissent."

As it happens, London, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Los Angeles have set up
cameras in public spaces, to great fanfare. It would have been easy for Mr.
O'Harrow to visit one of those cities to report on the effect. What he
would have found is that, rather than skulking against walls or cowering
indoors, residents engage in the same exhibitionistic behavior as before,
only more so, because more people now feel safe enough to use the streets.

We can be thankful that Mr. O'Harrow doesn't try to define privacy, usually
an exercise in wind-baggery. It would have been useful, however, if he had
disclosed his bottom line. Does he think that personal information should
never be used for national security or marketing, or only under certain
conditions? By the end of the book, he has criticized so many information
systems -- including fingerprinting -- that he would seem to regard as
unacceptable any identification method that is not 100% accurate. He sneers
at background checks for prospective employees without considering whether
even he might jump at the chance to run a criminal scan on a nanny for his

In any case, it's going to take a lot more than privacy scares to persuade
Americans to forgo that next nifty device -- a wristwatch, perhaps, that
includes a Global Positioning System, camera and cell phone -- no matter
how many consumer companies or cops might want to track its use.

Ms. Mac Donald is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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