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May 12, 2006

"Private" vs. Actually Private

If I speak to you in my own home, or over the phone, that's private. No one else is privvy to our interaction.

If I buy a book from, that's "private" in the sense that only a few dozen sales reps know about it, and an entire corporation could access my records if they so chose, and they could sell my sales history to any third party if they wanted, and a lawyer could subpeona those records should they be relevant in some lawsuit, and a private detective could pay a $13.00/hour Amazon worker a couple of hundred bucks if he wanted (for some reason) to know what I was buying on Amazon.

Yes, that's "private" information, all right.

It seems strange to me that liberals are shrieking that the Bush Administration is collecting the sort of information about Americans to defend this country against terrorists that corporations regularly collect, and sell to each other, for the purpose of selling you the Verizon Friends & Family plan.

To be fair, liberals have been shrieking about the loss of privacy to information-devouring corporations for a while. But, to point out their hypocrisy, they seem to have suddenly forgotten these previous complaints in order to pretend they truly had privacy as regards interactions with large corporations previously, and that Bush asking phone companies to voluntarily turn over calling histories represents some great and tragic loss of privacy.

That's kind of inconsistent, don't you think? You can't have been screaming for years your privacy had already been lost and now claim that, gee, it's being lost now. Sorry; a virgin can only lose her virginity once.

Seems to me the government is less likely to act against your interests with such information; the information resides in the computer banks of the NSA, where only well-paid and security-screened individuals have access to it.

Is that the case at T-Mobile? If a spouse suspects you of cheating, will a detective she hires be unable to bribe a T-Mobile employee into giving up your cell-phone call history?

Oh, wait a minute-- the detective wouldn't have to. That information is freely sold on the Internet for $100 or $120, no questions asked. You can get someone's entire call history, as well as their physical location when making those calls (because your cell phone is always sending out signals to the closest calling stattion), no questions asked, no warrant required.

Okay-- but what about calls from a landline? Indeed, it would cost someone $200 or $300 in a bribe to access your entire call history.

Feel safe?

There is a difference between "private" and truly private. It's time for liberals, as well as civil-liberties-focused conservatives and libertarians, to stop pretending the two are the same. Every purchase you make (unless its cash, paid at a physical bricks-and-mortar location) is tracked electronically, and that data is stored forever. Companies routinely sell that information to companies that analyze -- or, shall we say, "data-mine" -- such purchasing histories in order to re-sell your name as a "lead" to other companies.

And anyone who really wants to can get hold of that information.

It's "private" in the sense that it's not generally available to the public.

But it is readily available to anyone who's actually interested in it, which could range from the annoying (someone selling property in Florida) to the legally threatening (your spouse's private dick) to the physically dangerous (that stalker ex-boyfriend of yours who's hired someone to find out where you are).

I'm pretty sure the NSA isn't interested in selling me land or aiding those with lawsuits against me or assisting stalkers in tracking me down.

And yet, because it's the "government" -- and BusHitler's government, damnit! -- we're all supposed to pretend this is the scariest thing ever.

At least that's what the media and the liberals think we should pretend.

But two-thirds of us aren't going along with the pretense.

Incidentally: When this issue last came up, I *thought* I remembered reading a court had found in the 50's or 60's that while a warrant was needed to listen in on the content of a conversation, no such warrant was needed to simply record the particular numbers you had dialed, or had dialed into your home. You had an expectation of privacy in the former but not in the latter. As an analogy, while you may have an expectation of privacy when you enter a friend's house and speak with him, you don't have such an interest when you're walking around in public towards his house, and then knocking on his door. That is all visible to the public, and so you can't claim a privacy interest in it.

Similarly, just dialing someone's number is the telephonic equivalent of walking to someone's doorstep and ringing the bell. Yes, when you're inside, the content of your conversation is private, but not the actual dialing of the number.'s search function is down, so I can't confirm that.

Orin Kerr writes that the phone companies may have acted illegally in turning over these records, however, at least based on his reading of the law and his understanding of the facts. (And he is qualified and hesitant about that conclusion.)

But note that his piece is about the phone companies' disclosure of the records, not the government's request for the records or storage and analysis of the records.

Kerr's bit seems to analyze the legality of the phone companies' disclosure of the information only, not the legality of the government's receipt and storage of the information, so my memory may still be correct.

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posted by Ace at 01:11 PM

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