% fortune -ae paul murphy

Privacy, politics, and technology

My other favourite lunatic fringe site, the dailykos, has spent a lot of time and effort puffing a book by David H. Holtzman called "Privacy Lost: How Technology Is Endangering Your Privacy," offered for non-profit sale to educators via josseybass.com.

The book itself, seems to raise important issues about privacy today in an easily accessible way and thus does, or at least tries to do, something valuable - because there are issues here everyone should be concerned about.

Unfortunately everything about this book is tainted by political agendas and the assumption that the reader is absolutely clueless - the author, for example, apparently helped Al Gore invent the internet:

During the late 1990s, as CTO of Network Solutions, he ran the Internet domain-name system and oversaw the growth of the commercial Internet from five hundred thousand to over twenty million domain names

This wouldn't matter, except that this is a book someone should write - but without the three crippling problems affecting this version:

  1. much of the factual content is tainted by the author's uncritical acceptance of popular press mis-understandings about technology - he says, for example, that GPS locates people and objects to within a few centimetres- and equally uncritical, not to say enthusiastic, renditions of unsupported, misleading, or incorrect media reports hyping alleged privacy violations.

  2. the author often cites the ill-informed rants of others as supporting testimony for his own views - he endorses, for example, the idea that using RFID tags to manage library books impinges unreasonably on reader privacy - thus building his credibility in the eyes of the equally credulous and uninformed, but destroying it among more knowledgeable readers; and,

  3. both the jasseyboss sales pitch and some of the book's actual content aims the thing squarely at educators - in other words, at cynically exploiting the creduality of a generally non technical group in hopes of politizing the technical opinions of the next generation of political decision makers.

A lot of this stuff plays well with the dailykos ethic and the hidden assumption that everything bad is a plot against humanity to be magically corrected once the right people get into power in Washington.

Unfortunately such politization marks the subject as off limits to people who want to focus on the real issues and that's probably the biggest disservice committed by this book and the people pushing it -- because sometimes there really is a wolf, and this is one of those times.

Privacy issues are important: what's being done with personal and behavioural data by governments and others in Canada, the United States, and other countries is scary and potentially dangerous to personal freedom, but this isn't an artifact of evil machinations by the Bush administration or any other "them" or "they" in the pantheon of enemies imagined by the dailykos troops. In fact the whole issue has nothing to do with politics and is almost entirely the child of changing technologies meeting unchanging methods and agendas.

Government is always about control, about reducing unpredictability through regulation and information. Thus what we're generally seeing in the ID card and related processes being pushed by governments everywhere is simply the working out of long term control agendas resulting from organisational structures and pressures having nothing whatsoever to do with whoever happens to hold temporary political power.

The same thing is true on the commercial side. If your job is selling widgets, the more you know about your current and potential customers, the more widgets you can sell. Today Walmart runs one of the most effective customer information systems ever built, but they're not doing it in response to any political agenda: they're doing it to sell more widgets.

The bottom line is simple and apolitical: as more information about our personal activities becomes more easily, cheaply, and widely available we can expect people to try to use it to further their own agendas - and if we don't want to face the consequences we can reasonably expect from their current directions, then we need to understand those agendas and find less intrusive ways of meeting them, because technology change will defeat any effort aimed at making data access harder or more expensive.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.