"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 7 July 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

My Own Private "I Dunno"


[Remember that song by Rockwell, featuring Michael Jackson?  'Somebody's Watching me'?  Good song.]

Everyone has things they hate

about having a phone or a credit

card, whether it's being

interrupted by unwanted

telemarketing calls during

dinner/sleep/sex, or finding

ourselves somehow doomed to pay

some big bank substantially more

than everything we own. They are

also the two most

privacy-violating devices in our

lives, allowing anyone to

activate mini-alarms in our

homes and creating electronic

records of our purchases. But

still, few among even the most

intrepid defenders of consumer

privacy are willing to do

without them.


[Helicopters have scared me since I was a little kid.  Perhaps this is because one came down out of the sky and snatched my grandfather.]

It's tough to make choices about

the benefits vs. the detriments

of technologies; those who

complain about new technologies

but still use them act as if

these difficult choices are

forced upon us by fate, and our

only option is to reap both the

benefits and the detriments, and

then complain about it all

really loudly and try to force

other people to make the

decisions we have no real

interest in making ourselves.

But rest assured, for any

decision you don't want to make,

there's someone who would be

glad to make it for you. In many

cases, it's the government, and

so it is that the Federal Trade

Commission has been called in to

formulate a plan for dealing

with threats to privacy on the



As everyone, especially people

who rarely use it, knows by now,

the Internet represents new and

frightening frontiers in pornography,

paranoia, drug abuse, pedophilia, and

boring chatter about The

X-Files. Now it's becoming the

place where our precious privacy

is raped, laughed at, and tossed

in a dumpster by a chortling

bevy of sleazy, smelly marketers

who are only trying to make a

quick buck off of their

ill-gotten knowledge of our

name, address, Social Security

number, and favorite brand of

toothpaste. We're in danger of

having highly targeted

advertising aimed right where it

hurts the most: at us.


[You know, the concept of somepbody watching you from behind a tv, as illustrated in this image, is a scary thoought.  I mean considering what we do in front of the TV.  Or, well, what I do in front of the TV.]

Of course, technology is more

radically invasive than ever

before - ask anyone whose

neighbor has a car alarm. But

privacy has never been as

closely guarded as it is now,

either, both by multitudes of

do-gooder interest groups and

simple technological expediences

like *69 and caller ID, and no

one is more responsive -

verbally, at least - to public

outcry about privacy than

private companies. In an attempt

to preempt government action,

eight companies in the business

of collecting information about

you, your address, buying

habits, and family members, have

agreed on the heels of a confab

with the FTC to not augment

their basic public-record

information with marketing data.

Not all companies in the

business made this vow, and

nothing prevents those that did

from reneging, but why try to

slip out of deal whose grip is

so loose in the first place? As

the Washington Post put it, all

the companies agreed to was to

"limit the distribution of

non-public information, such as

Social Security numbers, to

government agencies, lawyers'

offices, and other groups that

they deem to have a legitimate

need for the data." This raises

the question what might be

deemed "legitimate." The

government's request for your

last video-tape rental ("Sir, do

you have a taste for horror

films featuring decapitation?

Oh, no reason, just idle

curiosity ...")? Or a

prospective employer's identical

inquiry? And the more important

question: Who would you rather

have access to such information?

Not that you need to trouble

yourself with such philosophical

issues. The only person not to

have a say in what happens to

information about you is you.


In any case, the information

these companies use is something

you gave away. To get

metaphysical about it, it's not

yours - it is the contents of

someone else's mind. It is about

you, certainly, but it is not

yours. Personal-information

list-trading practices can

affect individual lives at very

close range, true: Witness the


New-York-Times embarrassment

of having a prisoner begin

fantasy mail relationships with

unsuspecting women based on

information he gleaned from his

job as an envelope-stuffer. And,

hey, a New York Times front page

is probably better than

government action - and can

often be counted on to lead to



The government doesn't give a

flying aspidistra about your

privacy, except to ensure that

you can't protect it yourself

well enough to send encrypted

computer messages it can't read,

or make phone calls it can't

tap. Even as it huffs and puffs

to prove that by god it won't

let some jackanapes get away

with sending you promotional

junk mail that's targeted to

your previously exhibited buying

interests, it is trying

desperately to make sure that

nothing you say or write can

ever be beyond its purview.


[We serve cookies.  I think we serve about a hundred of 'em.  Cookies are good for your harddrive.  Trust suck on this one.]

Internet "cookies" and "agents"

can help someone keep track of

your Web site visits and

purchases. Interconnected

computer databases can link your

ZIP Code with some brand of soap

you bought with your car

registration, to what end who

knows. And the government wants

to be able to read all your mail

and listen to all your phone

calls. Pick your own threat to



[This is a picture of a guy with his mouth hanging wide open.  He looks dumb, so it's just as well that you can't see him.]

Privacy is not so much a right,

in terms of marketing, as it is

of cost-benefit analysis: All

sorts of modern conveniences

create long-lasting electronic

records of things you might not

want everyone to know, whether

it be credit cards (believe it,

scaredy cat, using one at a

local restaurant or Gap is as

dangerous as using one for

Internet commerce) or ATMs or

electronic toll roads. And if

you are going around filling out

consumer interest surveys for

magazines or products - the

source of a lot of list-sellers'

information, and how that poor

woman found herself the subject

of mash notes from prisoners and

on the cover of the Times -

well, pretty soon, you'll know



[ Read 1984 in 6th grade.  It damaged me.]

It's tough to credit with

sincerity the FTC's attempt to

get to the bottom of why it is

junk mail and email will be

becoming better and more

sinisterly targeted in the

future, when every actually

sinister possibility of privacy

violation is directly connected

with such things as

government-issued Social

Security numbers (our de facto

national ID number, though de

jure none is allowed) and

government-planned mandatory

encryption-key escrow. Of

course, the vows to behave on

the part of companies holding

onto potentially lucrative

information can't be taken

entirely seriously either. It's

absurd to have such vows

extracted under threat from the

institution that thinks it must

be able to hear every phone call

and read every email. In the

wonderful world of tomorrow, no

one is going to be concerned

about your privacy but you. If

it's really, really important to

you - like, "I'm avoiding a

multiple-murder rap" important -

"off the grid" living in the

wilds of Montana is always an

option. That's not your cup of

tea? Someone with money at stake

is apt to find out what is, and

send you unsolicited email

trying to sell it to you. Yes,

it's positively Orwellian: a

boot being hawked to a human

face, forever.

courtesy of Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk

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