Against Privacy: A Mock Debate

Tachibana speaking - Senators of the Special Committee on Electronic Privacy, thank you for hosting todays roundtable and for inviting the Center for Third Wave Studies to present at today's precedings. However, before we begin the debate between ideological opposites, I would like to say a few words about reality.

The technology used in daily life is changing. Information technologies are transforming the ways we create, gather, process, and share information; electronic transactions and records are becoming central to everything from commerce to government services to health care.

The emerging technologies of computer networking, of course, are driving many of these changes. The explosive and fairly recent growth of the Internet for instance, exemplifies this transition to a networked society.

But the transformation brought about by networking also raises new concerns for the security and privacy of networked information. I'l

l share with you a few statistics from a sample web-based information locator service. If I know your name, the following information is available for $50: your phone number (listed or not), your address (listed or not), your social security number, and the social security number of every member of your household (including spouses, children, and renters). For an additional $65, I can have your credit history, your driving record and vehicle history, or your school records (back to elementary), your public information voting records, or the same data for anyone living in your household. This is all perfectly legal and there are over a dozen separate web-based services. With a bit of ingenuity and perhaps some hazy interpretation of the law, of course, I can use the still-embryonic net to find out just about anything I want to about you. And beleive me, both corporate America and the U.S. governmnet have plenty of ingenuity.

Nevertheless, the benefits of a networked society are undeniable and and our mass transformation into a networked society is just as undeniable. There is no going back to the good old days.

At this time I would like to introduce two research associates at the Center, Rachada Yodvanich, privacy advocate and Zdenek Melin, privacy skeptic.


Tachibana speaking - Ms Yodvanich, many argue that, one of the most offensive aspects of our databased world are the piles of junk mail that are forced into our mailboxes daily.

Yodvanich speaking - It is no secret that publishers, credit card companies and many others regularly buy, sell and rent mailing lists and use them to direct mounds of letters pitching products and services. Here is a box of junk mail that I've been collecting for a couple of weeks. Our mailboxes overflow with catalogs, credit card applications, grand prize certificates, and other deals which we never requested and do not want.

The purchasers of these lists violate our privacy by sending us unwanted mail. First of all, we have to spend time sorting through the junk mail. Second, we don't receive any benefits from this transaction while the companies get many from using our names and addresses. Therefore, we should either have the right to exclude our names from the lists or to be compensated for them.

Tachibana speaking - Mr. Melin?

Melin speaking - This argument is absolutely anachronistic and undermining to your overall goals. You are like a child building a sand wall around her sand castle to protect it from the inevitably rising tide. If we hope to live with the "unstoppable" onslaught of information, we must make providers more, not less, able to target and filter their information.

The targetting of advertisements, aided by accurate and comprehensive personal data will mean that advertisers will be able to provide important mass customized services rather than hopelessly spin the advertising wheel of fortune, annoying us and wasting their own resources in the process.

Information Era advertisers need "more" information if they are to be effective and provide the service you "will" need in the information web.

Meanwhile, personal software will offer a second level of protection and filtering allowing you the power over delivery that the your relationship with the US post never allowed.

As for rewards, by providing you with a truly personalized catalog of the marketplace, advertisers or "information providers" will save you vast amount of time and energy.

Tachibana speaking - Mr. Melin presents a world in which information is not just unprotected, but readily available. I'm sure you see the need for protection.

Yodvanich speaking - I strongly agree that we need personal privacy to protect us from social punishment deriving from predjudice and irrationality. Personal information such as AIDS, sexual preference, religion or medical history should not be accessible by anyone but ourselves and those who we specifically allow.

In addition, we certainly don't want our private and confidential information falling into the hands of the unintended or unauthorized person. For instance, crimimals should not be able to get any information about their victims.

Finally, we cannot escape the mistakes of our past if others can reach our private information. For instance, when John was 16 years old, he smoked marijuana and was an alcoholic. However, as he grew older and more mature, he stopped. What will happen if his potential employer can access his historical data? Will he hold John's past against him?

Tachibana speaking - Mr. Melin, Society tolerates all different kinds of behavior - differences in religion, differences in political opinions, races, etc. But if your differences aren't accepted by the government or by other parts of society, you can still be tolerated if they simply don't know that you are different. Isn't the wall of privacy our only defense against discrimination?

Melin speaking - Fences and walls and barriers. My experience, growing up in Eastern Europe behind the iron curtain, teaches me that there is a heavy and unobvious price to pay for such "protection".

Sure, at one time the walls of privacy solved the pressing problem of discrimination by making every member of our "community" a stranger. But 200 years down the road we find ourselves crippled by a general sense of mistrust and fear. Well no wonder! America is a land of self-interested individuals set against each other by their own social ideologies.

Privacy creates a veil of perfection while suggests undderlying deceit. This does two things. Firstly it makes everyone feel as if imperfections are sub-human and unacceptable (thereby deepening predjudice) and secondly it creates a sense of guilt when one realizes her own imperfections. Sweeping our social problems under the rug IS NOT the way to solve them! We must face them by becoming a truly open society which understands that faults are parts of humanity.

Tachibana speaking - Ms Yodvanich, no debate about privacy would be complete witout mention of Orwellian surveillance. What dangers do you forsee for our society?

Yodvanich speaking - We must as citizens maintain our privacy so that the state does not have the power to control us. We should have the safety as well as the right to criticize the government if we are to live in a democracy. However, the legal right to express oneself is meaningless if there is no secure medium through which expression may travel because the government will be able to listen in. Recall, the Watergate scandal in which Nixon wiretapped other polititian's phones.

Further, if the government became a tyranny such as in the book 1984 or Brave new World then the government would have a video on every citizen like the cameras in department stores, and could use its technological capacity to impose total control. There would be no way for citizens to fight back, because their every effort to resist the government would be within the reach of the government's ability to know.

Tachibana speaking - Mr. Melin, you must admit, allowing the governmnet to protect your privacy is like letting a peeping Tom install your window shades.

Melin speaking - Sure, 1984 was a "great" story but fortunately it was just science "fiction". In "reality", we have built a decentralized network infrastructure. In fact, given overhead and congestion control, there "IS NO OTHER WAY" to build a National Information Infrastructure. Such a decentralized architecture means that no central "anything" will work, least of all an all powerful central bureaucracy.

Information will flow in both directions and the two way flow will give us MORE power over the governmnet because electronic democracy will allow us all to keep a more careful eye on everything the governmnet does while it will not be able to keep tabs on all of us.

Perhaps the government will have more to fear of the "big brother" citizenry than we ever will of the government.

But even if that were not the case, to live in a democracy is not to live in a utopia. There are certain problems we must accept if we are to reap the benefits of a democratic system. We must accept the sale of pornography iat 7-11, we must allow the KKK there time on the podium, and we must provide the government with personal data.

In a violent world, the police "must" have the tools with which to fight criminals.

Tachibana speaking - Ms Yodvanich, what of the nuts and bolts of privacy. How do the new technologies affect traditional privacy policy?

Yodvanich speaking - In the past, one of the most subtle, but most powerful privacy protection was the inconvenience of accessing geographically disperssed databases. However, now, information technology allows us to collect, store, process and communicate vast volumes of data with more efficiency and less cost and time. As a result, this merging of databases makes it easier to access our personal data. Also, the merging of databases may include faulty information which could be difficult to correct.

Finally, hackers can use the benefits of information technology to gain access to our confidential data such as our credit card number or social security number and use those data to benefit themselves at our expense.

Therefore, we should protect privacy by developing stronger laws to prevent the merging of databases and stronger laws to protect confidential information from hackers or unauthorized parties.

Tachibana speaking - Mr. Melin?

Melin speaking - Centralized databases are just as unrealistic as total centralized control of the network. What is actually developing is the seamless interaction between many databases, and this certainly does present some problems. However, the solutions to these problems does not include pretending that we can stop the interaction of databases as you suggest.

A network which is not free flowing is an unhealthy and inefficient network and the definition as to what is "acceptable" information is too vague.

Yet Congress does have a role in this arena. Focus should be placed on developing regulations for error correction, protections for open, affordable and convenient access and standards for seamless keyword search capabilities.

In the future, individuals will shepherd their information as it passes through thousands of decentralized databases across the web. Weekly error checks by information bots and communications with database administrators assured with digital signature will ensure that keyword searches will return accurate and up-to-date information.

In the Information Era, we have lost the ability to "control" our information. However, we are not helpless. We can develop policies to help us "manage" it.

As for hackers, there will be "hackers" whether there are electronic databases or file cabinets. However, a focus on management rather than control will help us "deal" more effectively with breakdowns in the system.


Tachibana speaking - Laws evolve in the context of the cultural mores, business practices, and technologies of the time. The laws currently governing commercial transactions, data privacy, and intellectual property were largely developed for a time when telegraphs, typewriters, and mimeographs were the commonly used office technologies and business was conducted with paper documents sent by mail. Technologies and business practices have dramatically changed, but the law has been slower to adapt. Computers, electronic networks, and information systems are now used routinely to process, store, and transmit digital data in most commercial fields, and things are not about to change.

Certainly the problems that privacy policies of the past sought to emeliorate haven't gone away, but as Mr. Melin points out, they have evolved. Targetting accuracy realigns the junk mail battlefield and decentralized telecommunications architecture undermines the Orwellian dystopic vision.

Meanwhile, new problems have developed. Ms, Yodvanich is wise to point to problems with database errors and access inequalities.

What is essential is that we allow our laws to evolve with changing environments. Traditional privacy policies may not be best suited to solve new problems.

The Center for Third Wave Studies advises that Congress leave behind its traditional privacy policies and rethink the problems. In our debate, we have presented two diametrically opposed sides for the purpose of clarifying the boundaries of the ideological landscape upon which you must erect realistic policy.

Given the actual and projected structural demands of our technology, certain policy directions seem essential.

Firstly, information flow must remain full duplex. Information must flow both ways if we are to avoid problems associated with Orwell and provide the most efficient networking platform.

Secondly, we recommend an open platform policy similar to that covering the present phone system. Every member of our society must have affordable and easy to use access to the information web.

Thirdly, similar focus must be placed on developing standards for error correction and the eventual move from hub site databases to a "database cloud" able to exchange information seamlessly accessed by keyword. Along those lines, Congress, must support the development of keyword software essential to all other aspects of the information web as well.

Finally, powerful digital signature technologies need to be easy to use and available to everyone so that data origina can be verrified.

As a final note however, we stress that the often most compelling and emotionally-gnawing arguments about privacy as the foundation of a discrimination-free society are not so simple. Privacy policies are prone to instill a profound society-wide sentiment of distrust which destroys the fabric of society as completely as the less subtle injustice of discrimination. Though privacy has been a tradtional hallmark of our civilization, we must have the courage to meet the future evedn if that future is unfamiliar.

Selena's Home | Creations | Seleves | Photo Gallery | Resume