Friday, January 2, 2015

Assume Surveillance

h/t Popehat for this howler from the Baltimore P-E. It's remarkable in that the author invites libertarians to join him in rejecting the institutions of private property, but the germ of the offer is privacy. Libertarians are worried about governments collecting private information, so they should also be worried about corporations collecting information.

I think this is [sort of] true. I am not a libertarian, so I won't speak on libertarians' behalf, but I retain some concern that the same large, amorphous organization that claims the legitimate authority to imprison, fine, or execute me also gathers voluminous personal data about me. And at first glance, businesses that do much the same thing with the end of offering me exchange opportunities is not just unobjectionable, but welcome. When I read passages like this:
Every moment, torrents of your personal data are pouring into corporate databases. This information is used to refine your credit rating, adjust prices for goods and services, brief potential employers, tailor dating opportunities, define your reputation, determine insurance rates, inform your medical treatment – in short, to influence nearly every aspect of your day-to-day life. And it’s all in private hands, unaccountable to democratic oversight and control, and almost always used to make someone else wealthier with no regard for your own interests.
I beam. People who don't know me are working tirelessly to make it easier for me to find goods and services that will improve my life? They're helping me find love? They're providing more accurate information to lenders so that I no longer have to directly subsidize the imprudent? And all they ask in return is a mere sliver of what these same services would have cost me even as recently as twenty years ago? That, my dear friends, is what I call a screaming deal.

That's awfully romantic, isn't it? That's why I don't believe it for a minute. While I do think that retailers collect data for entirely business-related purposes, it is the height of absurdity to think that Pooh Bear would ignore a delicious pot of hunny, even if it's in Rabbit's Howse.

I am still a Humean at heart. I assume that the sovereign seeks dominion where he can find it. I assume that constituents' scarce attention implies that for most people, the time and trouble it would take to properly research the extent of state surveillance exceeds the marginal benefit they'd enjoy from knowing. Because of this, I don't see an easy way to constrain the state from plundering data troves, either openly or surreptitiously. Ideally, folks would have a tidy set of received heuristics the way we have for kicking the tires on horses or looking gift cars in the mouth. Expecting politicians to constrain leviathan is very much petitioning the fox to guard the henhouse. Asking merchants to police themselves ignores the logic of competition. It's a caveat civis world. Understand that anything you do that enters a computer system (which is pretty much anything) is subject to surveillance. Assume your BATNA accordingly.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?