January 14, 2015

The Right to Be Let Alone: Privacy in the United States
Tim Schwartz

Based on other books that I had encountered in the Reanimation Library, I expected Gerald S. Snyder's The Right to Be Let Alone: Privacy in the United States, to be an off-the-grid, back-to-nature, survivalists musings on privacy, brimming with paranoid attitudes such as "get off my land" and "don't trust the banks." To my surprise The Right to Be Let Alone traces the history of privacy in America and questions its future in the face of new technologies. Somewhat surprisingly, this book should probably be on our bedside tables right now given the National Security Agency revelations of 2013, constant data breaches, and the United States' lack of government regulation in the realm of personal data privacy.

Using explicit legal and technological examples, Snyder describes how privacy in America is eroding as new technology makes it easier to collect, store, and analyze our personal information, thoughts, and ideas. In the final chapter, Snyder plays oracle and predicts what the world of technology and privacy might look like in the year 2000 (twenty five years into the future from Snyder's perspective). It is astonishing how accurate his predictions are.

"The greatest threat to privacy, however, will come not from places at all but from devices—advances in technology that are increasing in sophistication every day." (170)

With this one prescient sentence Snyder anticipates how our society's unquestioning adoption of new technologies will begin to erode our personal privacy. To me, this rings true. The home used to be a "safe space" where prying eyes and ears could not penetrate, but now physical location does not stop surveillance. Take for example smart watches, fitness trackers, and smartphones that have come to market in the last few years. These devices monitor us while connected to the Internet. Data about our location, our communication with others, what we are seeing or hearing (with video and audio), and even biometric information is automatically uploaded to the Internet and stored on servers that we as individuals do not control.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The excitement over the Internet of Things means that in the next few years we will see everything put online and connected, transmitting more and more data from an array of sensors embedded in every object around us. "What food did you buy today?" "Did you drive over the speed limit?" "Did you actually work at your desk all day?" These questions are all answerable right now with devices that are on the market.[1] Insurance companies and banks have a long history of using data to make decisions. How long until they have your personal data too? Perhaps your Facebook profile, blog posts, or web browsing history make you too risky to insure or qualify for a loan? In fact this is already happening. In 2009, a woman on long-term leave from her company for depression had her insurance cut-off because of Facebook photos the company found of her having a good time.[2]

data center

Harry Kalven, Jr., a professor of law at the University of Chicago who is quoted in the book, had this to say about the coming changes to privacy brought about through technological innovation:

"The intrusions will not be limited to government measures in aid of law enforcement or national security. The technology may become a commonplace in the hands of private parties—employers interested in the off-hours actives of employees, competitors interested in one another's integrity and trade secrets, estranged spouses interested in perfecting grounds for divorce, insurance companies interested in the subsequent health of personal-injury claimants they have paid, and the idly curious who are just interested. Thus, by 2000, man's technical inventiveness may, in terms of privacy, have turned the whole community into the equivalent of an army barracks." (170)

For some reason though, we just don't seem to care. Do we adopt these technologies because we think they will make us more efficient? Maybe our society is just too driven by early adopter consumerism that we hardly consider the repercussions of the new system or device. Snyder saw this coming as well.

"Just consider, for example, what might happen as we become more reliant upon the computer to do things for us. Is it not possible that someday we might become insensitive to the computer's intrusions into our privacy?" (166)

There has been no large government regulation push in the two years since the revelations about the large scale NSA data harvesting programs. Perhaps the problem with data privacy and regulation is that not enough people are hurt at the same time to bring people together in a unified front. The Target and Home Depot data breaches affected a combined 100,000,000 credit cards, mailing addresses, and email address—a huge number.[3,4] Maybe if those 100,000,000 people all had their identities stolen as a result, there might be an uproar, but right now the repercussions are too diffuse and individualized. Currently there are people that are being pulled over for screenings who shouldn't be, or are flagged to have an analyst look through their bank records and emails without their knowledge. But, unfortunately in these cases the number of people impacted at any given point is one.

Could it be that when our digital privacy is violated, there is nothing tangible to point to as being wrong? Contrast this to when technology was more analog—a microphone in the room listening to you, or a person with binoculars looking in your window—the effect was more obvious that something was wrong. But when a computer program steals your data it doesn't feel as real or as threatening. I would assume this is why it hasn't generated the necessary groundswell of support to agitate for change.

data center

Perhaps this societal apathy is due to the lack of a concrete definition of our privacy rights in the Bill of Rights? Unlike free speech in the first amendment or the guard against unreasonable search and seizure in the fourth, privacy is not specifically highlighted by any article. This isn't to say that privacy isn't in the Bill of Rights. In the 1964 supreme court case Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court ruling established that a right of privacy is implied by the amendments.[5] But the treatment of privacy is subtle in comparison to those other rights, the violation of which has historically garnered far greater outage and protest.

Snyder tells us that privacy is not absolute, and its application will always be questioned.

"What is more important, strict adherence to individual privacy or the rights that society may consider to be even more important—those, for example, which may affect the public interest or national security?" (29)

This prioritization of other things over individual privacy is exactly what happened after the 9/11 attacks. America became so obsessed with terrorism and weeding out the bad apples that the right to privacy got thrown out the window. Of course much of this was behind closed doors and its ramifications remained obscured until Edward Snowden's document release in 2013.

"...as the government, in order to carry out its expanding welfare programs, puts more and more information about people's tastes, living habits and personalities into computers, we could be moving toward, as someone has remarked, a 'computerized dictatorship.'" (171)

Snyder's dark predictions about the erosion of privacy in the wake of technological advancements and perhaps even scarier, our insensitivity to it, were eerily prescient, even more so in 2015 than in 2000, the year that Snyder set his predictions for. Let's now consider some of Snyder's predictions that have not come to pass — might these be what are coming to the future of privacy?

"As the computer becomes more 'knowledgeable,' and as mind-controlling drugs, hypnosis and personality tests improve, might not people live under the constant fear of their thoughts becoming known?" (172)

data center

In 2013, scientists connected two monkey's brains and had one monkey control the arm of the other monkey, that had been drugged.[7] If we replace the first monkey with a computer, this real-world experiment comes very close to Snyder's prediction. In fact, our society is already very comfortable with mind-altering drugs. In 2013, over 70% of Americans took prescription drugs,[7] many of which are mood altering. Is it such a leap to think that we would one-day use computers in a similar fashion?

"Some scientists are worried that in the future there might be secret artificial intelligence research in which computers of such complexity are developed that they can be used as tools to subvert society and undermine freedom. 'If the potential exists for machines to become more intelligent than humans, might they someday seize control?" goes a well-developed theme used by science fiction writers.' (175)

In general I find it quite hard to believe that computers will eventually control human beings, but after reading this book and seeing how many of Snyder's predictions came true, perhaps I need to be a little more open to this possibility.

Some people already claim to be cyborgs. In 2004, Neil Harbisson had an antenna implanted in his skull[8] so that he could hear colors (Harbisson is color blind). The algorithms used in this example are rudimentary, but what if the antenna started sending him other information? Might the computer be able to influence Harbisson in some way? The intertwining of humans and computers will continue to happen and soon not just your computer or phone, but perhaps even your mind and body could be hacked.

Finally, I'll let Snyder summarize the future he predicted that we now live in:

"Thus, in the future, privacy might become one of the great social issues of all time. This seems bound to happen if people ever find themselves locked into an 'information prison' in which almost everything is in a computer file. What if, by merely pushing a button, a prospective employer could find out a person's medical record? What if credit bureaus could determine the contents of an individual's bank account?" (176)

This is the world we now live in, try not to be apathetic.


[1]Tuttle, Brad. "Big Data Is My Copilot: Auto Insurers Push Devices That Track Driving Habits By Brad Tuttle" Time. August 6, 2013. Accessed January 13, 2015. http://business.time.com/2013/08/06/big-data-is-my-copilot-auto-insurers-push-devices-that-track-driving-habits/.
[2]"Depressed Woman Loses Benefits over Facebook Photos." CBC News, November 19, 2009. http://www.cbc.ca/1.861843.
[3]Chen, Brian X. "Home Depot Investigates a Possible Credit Card Breach." The New York Times, September 2, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/03/technology/home-depot-data-breach.html.
[4]Harris, Elizabeth A., and Nicole Perlroth. "Target Missed Signs of a Data Breach." The New York Times, March 13, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/14/business/target-missed-signs-of-a-data-breach.html.
[5]Griswold v. Connecticut (No. 496), (1965). http://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/381/479.
[6]Shanechi, Maryam M., Rollin C. Hu, and Ziv M. Williams. "A Cortical-spinal Prosthesis for Targeted Limb Movement in Paralysed Primate Avatars." Nature Communications 5 (February 18, 2014). doi:10.1038/ncomms4237.
[7]"Nearly 7 in 10 Americans Take Prescription Drugs, Mayo Clinic, Olmsted Medical Center Find." http://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org. Accessed January 11, 2015. http://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/nearly-7-in-10-americans-take-prescription-drugs-mayo-clinic-olmsted-medical-center-find/.
[8]Wei, Will. "This Real-Life Cyborg Has An Antenna Implanted Into His Skull." Business Insider. August 18, 2014. http://www.businessinsider.com/neil-harbisson-cyborg-2014-8.

Tim Schwartz is a Los Angeles-based artist, technologist, and activist who makes works of art focused on technology, information, privacy, and how our culture absorbs changes in these areas.

View The Right to Be Let Alone: Privacy in the United States in the catalog here.

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