Tag: anonymity

Planned Economy, Privacy Problems

If someone asked you what’s wrong with a planned economy, your first answer might not be “privacy.” But it should be. For proof, look no further than the financial regulation bill the Senate is debating. Its 1,400 pages contain strong prescriptions for a government-micromanaged economy—and the undoing of your financial privacy. Here’s a look at some of the personal data collection this revamp of financial services regulation will produce.

The “Office of Financial Research” (sec. 152) will have a “Data Center” (sec. 154) that requires submisson of data on any financial activity that poses a threat to financial stability.

Use your noggin, now: Will government researchers know in advance what might cause financial instability? Will they home in on precisely that? No.

This is government entrée into any financial activities federal bureaucrats suspect might cause instability. It’s carte blanche to examine all financial transactions—including yours. (Confidentiality rules? The better view is that privacy is lost when the government takes data from your control, but we’ll come back to confidentiality.)

The Office of Financial Research is also a sop to industry. Morgan Stanley estimates that it will save the company 20 to 30 percent of its operating costs. The advocates for this bureaucracy want to replace the competitive environment for financial data with a uniform government data platform. Students of technology will instantly recognize what this data monoculture means: If the government’s data and assumptions are bad, everyone’s data and assumptions are bad, and all players in the financial services system fall together. The Office of Financial Research itself poses a threat to financial stability.

But all that’s about money. On with privacy…

The “Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection” (sec. 1011) in the bill is another beetle boring into your personal financial life. Among its mandates is to “gather information … regarding the organization, business conduct, markets, and activities of persons operating in consumer financial services markets” (sec. 1022(c)(4)).

In case you’re wondering, the definition of “person” includes “an individual” (sec. 1002(17)). The Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection can investigate your business conduct and activities.

Come now. All this private data gathering can’t possibly be what they mean to do, can it?

Section 1071(b) requires any deposit-taking financial institution to geo-code customer addresses and maintain records of deposits for at least three years. Think of the government having its own Google map of where you and your neighbors do your banking. The Bureau may “use the data for any other purpose as permitted by law,” such as handing it off to other bureaus, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Still, that’s really not what the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection is supposed to be about, is it? It can’t be!

It’s not. Nor was the Social Security number about creating a uniform national identifier that facilitates both lawful (excessive) data collection and identity fraud. The construction of surveillance infrastructure doesn’t turn on the intentions of its builders. They’re just giving another turn to the wheels that crush privacy.

Promises of confidentiality and “de-identified” data are not reassuring. It’s getting harder and harder to collect data that are not personally identifiable. Latanya Sweeney’s 2002 “k-anonymity” paper is best known for establishing how anonymous data can be “re-identified,” unraveling promised confidentiality and privacy.

Just a few “anonymous” data points can pick out individuals. Data-driven triangulation on individuals will get easier as data collection grows society-wide. Confidentiality rules in the bill will tend to fail over time, if they’re not simply reversed when some future exigency demands it. If we’re to maintain privacy, government data collection should be shrinking, not growing.

How do you manage an economy from the top? You collect data. Thanks to computing and communications, there are lots of data available nowadays. Maybe the failed Progressive-Era dream of “scientific government” has been revitalized by the idea that data can shore up regulation’s natural defects.

My colleague Mark Calabria has investigated and drawn into question whether it was a lack of consumer protection that caused the financial crisis. But Washington, D.C. has determined that Washington, D.C. should manage the financial services industry. Your personal and private financial affairs will be managed there too.

Even Unpopular Causes Get Full First Amendment Protection

Under Washington’s constitution, a popular vote must be ordered on any bill passed by the legislature if a specified percentage of state voters sign a petition for a referendum. Washington’s Public Records Act makes public records, including such referendum petitions, available for public inspection. In 2009, opponents of same-sex marriage used the referendum procedure to attempt to reverse a state law which expands the rights of state-registered domestic partners. Proponents of the law sought access to the petition and two of the petition signers sought a preliminary injunction to prevent disclosure of their personal information, arguing that the PRA violates their right to speak anonymously.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the right to access trumps the right to anonymity. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the First Amendment right to privacy in political speech, association, and belief requires strict scrutiny when a state compels the public release of identifying information about petition signers, and whether compelled disclosure of such information is narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest.

Cato filed a brief supporting the petition signers, in which we argue that the Court should establish a bright-line rule prohibiting laws that mandate the full disclosure of petition signers’ identities and contact information. Public disclosure carries significant burdens and unconstitutionally chills the exercise of First Amendment rights when no compelling government interest is at stake.

If the Court finds that the state has a compelling interest in public disclosure, disclosure exemptions are constitutionally required. Failure to require exemptions would permit the government to suppress the expression of offensive or unpopular ideas and would discourage individuals from associating in the first place.

Finally, our brief argues that even exemptions are not a substitute for strict scrutiny and provide inadequate protection where disclosure is not justified by compelling state interests. Exemption rules still chill speech, by their nature as an ad hoc process without fixed standards; the government is ill-suited to identify which groups should be exempt from disclosure, as is evidenced by their poor track record of erroneously suppressing controversial or unpopular speech.

The case, Doe v. Reed, will be argued in April.