Happy goldfish bowl to you

Goldfish-Bowl Blues.web

“Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone,” (Isaac Asimov, The Dead Past)

This is a terrific (if controversial) piece by Judge Alex Kozinski on why privacy is being eroded today. It was delivered as a keynote(*) on February 2012, well before the current NSA scandal started, but it is absolutely up-to-date. And no, altough the judge is not particularly adept with modern technology, he does not blame technology as you would expect:

I do think that technology can be a dangerous thing because it changes the way we do things and the way we think about things; and sometimes it changes our own perception of who we are and what we’re about.

Kozinski thinks that only 25 years ago, the government would not have tried to get as much “private” information as it is gathering today, and if it had done it, the telephone companies –the main source of private information in that not so distant past– would have refused to collaborate. Why?

Because twenty-five years earlier both the government and the phone companies would probably have considered this information private and therefore beyond the reach of the government—at least without a warrant.

The law, and particularly the Fourth Amendment, only protects those items as to which an individual has a legitimate expectation of privacy. If you have a conversation with someone behind closed doors, that conversation will be considered private; the government can’t listen in without first obtaining a warrant and making a showing of probable cause. But if you have a conversation in a public place where it can be overheard by others, it’s not protected. And that’s the key, because today:

People seem to lack the least compunction about discussing the most intimate subjects within full earshot of other people, often shouting so loudly that the phone seems superfluous.

A great deal of our loss of privacy is entirely consensual, and Kozinski thinks that it is hard to complain that the government gets the same stuff that we’re willing to sell so cheaply to third parties, and not always for a particularly elevated reason:

In a world where employers monitor the computer communications of their employees, law enforcement officers find it easy to demand that internet service providers give up information on the web-browsing habits of their subscribers. In a world where people post up-to-the-minute location information through Facebook Places or Foursquare, the police may feel justified in attaching a GPS to your car.  In a world where people tweet about their sexual experiences and eager thousands read about them the morning after, it may well be reasonable for law enforcement, in pursuit of terrorists and criminals, to spy with high-powered binoculars through people’s bedroom windows or put concealed cameras in public restrooms. In a world where you can listen to people shouting lurid descriptions of their gall-bladder operations into their cell phones, it may well be reasonable to ask telephone companies or even doctors for access to their customer records. If we the people don’t consider our own privacy terribly valuable, we cannot count on government—with its many legitimate worries about law-breaking and security—to guard it for us.

The danger here is not Big Brother:

In the immortal words of Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


(*) 2012 Symposium: The Privacy Paradox: Privacy and Its Conflicting Values. Keynote delivered at Stanford Law School on February 3, 2012.

Featured Image: Kathleen Alexander, Goldfish-Bowl Blues

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