30th July 2011
Liberty, transparency, decency, privacy, security, secrecy, crime, and paranoia
A few more general thoughts on privacy and associated issues.
At one time people did not lock their houses when they went out for work. That was because there were no thieves around. This is still (I gather) the case in Japan. I remember reading somewhere that newspaper vendors in Japan leave the newspapers in the open. People pick up what they want and pay for it. No one cheats.
Similarly, when the knife in the kitchen doesn't jump up and kill someone on its own. Or consider my bank account password. If I give it out publicly (which I won't!) then 99% of the people will do nothing with it. Some might log in to find what I earn and where my money goes, but that is just curiosity: with no criminal intent. Indeed, there are occasions when someone may want to disclose their financial details to establish credibility and integrity. For instance, I have promised to disclose my financial data publicly when I am ready (along with the team on FTI) to contest elections.
Instead, there are people who go to the other extreme, walking about without clothes, and even engaging in otherwise private acts in public. That creates the contrary problem – of indecency. Such people are told to dress up and go INSIDE their house. Indeed, even going inside the house might not be enough. I recall walking down the Kahun Road in Pune in 1981 in the late evening, where adobe brick army barracks of the British era abut the road, and found a couple with partly covered bodies doing their thing in their brightly lit bedroom with the large window wide open. Being inside the house is not enough. Sometimes the curtain must be drawn.
But mingle any harmless thing (knife/ financial details) with criminal intent and everything changes. The knife can suddenly become an instrument of death. Our money can be stolen by criminals who hack into our account. So the problem is NOT that someone knows something about us (or even enters our house – if we customarily leave our house open), but that the person then uses this information for private gain (e.g. when someone sells information about celebrities to newspapers), or to harm us (e.g. to steal our goods or money).
We have the innate right of non-disclosure of our information to defend our security. That is part of our freedom. And we are well advised to keep our information out of reach of potential criminals and keep our house locked when we leave.
But we can overdo this "privacy" thing. Indeed, entire societies can overdo it.
For instance, the fear of government is so high in USA that everyone buys a gun to defend themselves. This is close to paranoia. Other societies trust their governments too much and prevent anyone except the government from owning guns. That, too, is inappropriate. The appropriate approach should be risk-based, with those whose lives are at risk being able to buy guns, and those not at risk choosing to live without guns. Thus, we should not keep knives lying around within reach of small children, but there is no need to stop using knives altogether.
There is no one-size-fits-all concept of "privacy". Privacy is one of the many choices we make. And all people are different. But there can be (and should be) a law against crime. A law against crime will, in some cases, even authorise an intrusion of our privacy. The thief has no "privacy" to secretly hide stolen goods.
This is very similar to the argument that is made regarding rape. A woman can choose to wear anything she wears (so long as she does wear something) but the kind of clothes she wears doesn't give anyone a right to rape her. Let people be free to choose. And let's keep the concept of liberty distinct from the concept of crime.
Even if I give out my bank account password publicly, you have no right to steal my money. Even if I leave the door of my house open, you have no right to steal my goods. I may choose ZERO privacy. That does not authorise crime.
The debate about privacy must therefore strike the right balance between concepts like liberty, transparency, decency, and prevention of crime. The key issue is the prevention – and punishment – of crime.