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Approaching the End of Privacy

From President Bush's weekly radio address:

This week, new claims have been made about other ways we are tracking down al Qaeda to prevent attacks on America. It is important for Americans to understand that our activities strictly target al Qaeda and its known affiliates. Al Qaeda is our enemy, and we want to know their plans. The intelligence activities I have authorized are lawful and have been briefed to appropriate members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat. The privacy of all Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities. The government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval. We are not trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans. Our efforts are focused on links to al Qaeda terrorists and its affiliates who want to harm the American people. [source]

The government has created a database of information about domestic telephone calls for the purpose of looking for patterns that might be useful in gathering intelligence against al Qaeda. The database was created with the assistance of the major telecommunications companies. It contains metadata about the calls — such as the information you would see on your monthly bill — but not the content of the calls themselves. What does a pro-freedom, small-government type like me think about this situation?

I'm not surprised. But perhaps surprisingly, I also don't care very much.

This was inevitable. Not for any political reason; I don't think this is an ominous sign of an encroaching police state or a sinister new threat to my privacy. This was inevitable because of technology. The cost of data storage and manipulation has been falling exponentially, continuously, for decades. This database was created because it's feasible to make it. And if the government didn't do it, someone else would have.

In fact, someone else already did: the telephone companies supplied the data from their own databases. The only "new" thing here is that the data has been pooled together instead of held separately at each company. Because this data is valuable, the pooling would have happened eventually even if the government hadn't asked for it.

Strong advocacy of privacy is one of the common elements of libertarianism, but I realized it was a losing battle a long time ago. Computers are slowly killing privacy, and it can't be stopped.

When you make a telephone call, you're connected by a computer. Do you pay per-minute? It's necessary to record metadata about your call for billing purposes.

When you write a check, or pay a bill online, the bank has a record. You do want to see all your transactions in your monthly statement, don't you? The same is true for online currencies. Every transaction is performed by, and recorded by, a computer. Even if you keep your identity secret, the pattern of your transactions can be seen.

Your credit cards are tracked, too. Do you have a "rewards" card that gives you money back for food or gasoline purchases? That's only possible because the credit card company knows which transactions are made at restaurants or gas stations.

Electronic mail isn't secure at all (by default). Google's mail service scans the contents of your messages to target advertising. Even if the contents are ignored, the mail transfer agents certainly need to know where the message came from and where it's going to. These details can be logged. Traffic analysis is useful to fight spammers, after all.

Search engines can log your search terms. So can the sites you visit. For example, within the last day someone from Belgium found my blog by searching for "arbyte sexs". (While I appreciate the interest, the travel would be too expensive. Sorry.)

Your local library knows what kinds of books you check out. Amazon.com knows what kinds of books you buy. Your video store knows what movies you like. Unless you do business in person and pay cash, you're being tracked.

Everybody has information about you, and — snicker — "information wants to be free". As the costs of data storage and manipulation continue to fall, this information will eventually be combined. Even if various privacy policies forbid the sharing of data in this way, I expect the data will eventually be stolen because of its great potential value. The genie can't be put back into its bottle. I don't think the end of privacy will take the form of a police state. I rather think it will usher in a new era of advertising.

And part of me wants it to happen. Que "I, for one, welcome our new advertising overlords."

UPDATE 2006-05-16 05:20:25 UTC: Case in point.

Tiny Island