Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

Headline Writers’ Lacking Literary Knowledge

Twice in two days now, I’ve come across news articles using the term “Big Brother” to refer to private sector information practices that affect privacy. Big Brother is not an appropriate shorthand here. In his book 1984, George Orwell gave the name “Big Brother” to the oppressive government that observed and controlled the lives of the book’s protagonists. The unique oppressive powers of this governmental entity were a central motif of the book.

Yesterday’s Washington Post had an article headlined “FTC Wants to Know What Big Brother Knows About You.” Is the Federal Trade Commision examining warrantless wiretapping, one hopes? Alas, no — they’re looking at “behavioral targeting” on the Web. This is when advertisers collect information about Web surfers with cookies, using it to direct more relevant ads their way.

Consumers who care to can “opt out” of nearly all “behavioral targeting” by setting their browsers not to receive third-party cookies. In both Internet Explorer and Firefox, the “Tools” pull-down has a selection called “Options.” Clicking the “Privacy” tab allows users to set blanket bans on cookies or site-specific preferences.

Behavioral targeting is in no way an exercise of the legal monopoly on coercion, much less an oppressive exercise of that power.

Ars Technica, an otherwise excellent tech publication, mangled the same literary reference in this headline: “Big Brother is Watching: Companies Snoop E-mail to Combat Leaks.” Employers monitoring communications on their systems are neither exercising government power nor oppressing their employees.

The most cogent, if not the kindest, explanation of this came in the comments to a recent blog post by Bruce Shneier (one I disagreed with). There, commenter “ManOnBlog” said:

You check your constitutional rights at the door when you go to work. They can tap your phone, read your email, paw through your computer, open your locker, etc. The list of what they can’t do legally is shorter than what they can do.

Commenter “@ ManOnBlog” replied:

> You check your constitutional rights at the door when you go to work.

No, you don’t.

> They can tap your phone

No, they can’t. They can tap *their* phone, which you use.

> Read your email

No, they can’t. They can read *their* email, which you use in the course of your job (although generally speaking they need to be VERY CAREFUL about this, because although your corporate mail store is indeed company property they have obligations to protect the individual information that is in that mail store if it is your personal info).

> paw through your computer

No, they can’t. They can paw through *their* computer. Again, see the email line above.

> open your locker

Ditto.

The distinction between government and private action is something more people should understand — especially people who write headlines for a living.

L-1 and China - Oh, Nevermind - Naomi Klein

In a recent Cato TechKnowledge, I highlighted a company called L-1 Identity Solutions that is likely to be a key sponsor of any continuing efforts to implement the REAL ID Act, our moribund national ID law.

L-1 features prominently in a current Rolling Stone article which points out how the company is working with China to build surveillance technologies that the state will use in its attempt to maintain a grip on power.

But before you get to that, you have to stomach this:

Remember how we’ve always been told that free markets and free people go hand in hand? That was a lie. It turns out that the most efficient delivery system for capitalism is actually a communist-style police state, fortressed with American “homeland security” technologies, pumped up with “war on terror” rhetoric. And the global corporations currently earning superprofits from this social experiment are unlikely to be content if the lucrative new market remains confined to cities such as Shenzhen. Like everything else assembled in China with American parts, Police State 2.0 is ready for export to a neighborhood near you.

There are serious issues here, but they’re so mixed up with ideological vomitus that it’s hard to carry on reading. If this paragraph isn’t just meaningless, the author has obviously deemphasized telling an interesting story in favor of indoctrinating readers with–well, whatever the substance is behind those anti-globalization street-puppet shows.

Sure enough, when I went to see who wrote it, it was Naomi Klein. The same Naomi Klein, I assume, who inspired Johan Norberg to pen his recent briefing paper, “The Klein Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Polemics.”

Milton Friedman’s legacy survives her book with ease, so it didn’t trouble me much. But confusing the kids who read Rolling Stone about the role of communism in keeping China unfree? That could actually do some damage.

Reversing the Course of a River

Bruce Schneier is a smart and interesting guy. His sound thinking on computer security has influenced me a great deal, and it extrapolates well into related fields like national security. So I’m always interested to find writings of his with which I disagree. A recent essay in Wired, entitled “Our Data, Ourselves” is one. It calls for “a comprehensive data privacy law.”

This law should protect all information about us, and not be limited merely to financial or health information. It should limit others’ ability to buy and sell our information without our knowledge and consent. It should allow us to see information about us held by others, and correct any inaccuracies we find. It should prevent the government from going after our information without judicial oversight. It should enforce data deletion, and limit data collection, where necessary. And we need more than token penalties for deliberate violations.

If he really believes that these rules should govern the collection and use of data - “all information about us!” - what an administrative nightmare that would be to implement. The benefits of doing so would be quite small in comparison.

Some of these things are agreeable, such as judicial oversight of government data collection (the Fourth Amendment is that law) but even a solid libertarian like myself wouldn’t endorse judicial oversight of government officials looking up information about me on public Web sites, for example.

And should I have a right to review any email in which people discuss this blog post and its author? Incredible.

The flaw in this article (beyond its carelessness) is Bruce’s treatment of these information practices as all-new, and needing an all-new regulatory regime, just because decision-making is now undertaken using “data.”

Whoever controls our data can decide whether we can get a bank loan, on an airplane or into a country. Or what sort of discount we get from a merchant, or even how we’re treated by customer support.

But it’s always been true that decisions like these are made using “data” - perhaps not in digital form, but data/information all the same. When has a decision ever been made not using “data”? We don’t need to throw out old rules about privacy, fairness, and so on just because information is digitized.

Many of Schneier’s premises are correct. The change from analog to digital data systems does cause a lot more tracks to form behind people as they traverse the economy and society. This creates lots of efficiency, convenience, wealth, and problems - threats to privacy, fair treatment, personal security, seclusion, and liberty. Let’s deal with them - each one - on their merits rather than trying to write a single law to overhaul the use of information in society.

Reversing the course of a river would be a tiny problem compared to what Schneier proposes.

Lieberman: Censor

The Google Public Policy blog has a write up of the company’s recent interactions with Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and his staff regarding some videos hosted on YouTube.

Senator Lieberman thinks that certain terrorism videos shouldn’t be displayed. Well, actually, a U.S. Senator has no business telling anyone what information should or shouldn’t be published. Congress can pass a law on the subject, which law would never pass First Amendment muster.

Perhaps Senator Lieberman thinks that censoring communications is some kind of anti-terrorism policy. Advocacy of terrorism of glorification of terrorist acts is stupid and dastardly, but the cure for bad speech is more speech or better speech, not censorship.

Peer-to-Patent

Here’s a video highlighting the Peer-to-Patent project originated by Beth Noveck and New York Law School’s “Do Tank.”

Whether because of inappropriately low standards for granting patents or recent decades’ outburst of inventiveness in technological fields, the Patent and Trademark Office is swamped. Patent examiners lack the breadth of knowledge in relevant fields to do the job they should be doing on each patent application. Drawing on the knowledge of interested and knowledgeable people can only improve the process, and this project aims to do just that.

I’ve written favorably about Peer-to-Patent at TechLiberationFront a couple of times, but here’s a cautionary note: A successful Peer-to-Patent program would result in a dispersion of power from patent examiners and the USPTO to the participants in the project. Surface support from the USPTO notwithstanding, the application of public choice theory to bureaucracies (by Cato’s own Bill Niskanen) tells us that the agency won’t give up this power without a fight.

REAL ID Update From the Upper Midwest

The upper Midwest is where the REAL ID action is these days. Our national ID law is getting its airing in the lands of lutefisk and cheese.

In Minnesota, Governor Tim Pawlenty (R) vetoed an entire transportation bill to spike anti-REAL ID provisions that the legislature had included. The legislature turned around and passed a free-standing anti-REAL ID bill with a veto-proof majority.

Now Pawlenty is seeking to make patsies of the legislature. Along with vetoing the new bill, he issued an executive order that would prevent Minnesota’s full compliance with the federal Real ID program before June 1, 2009 unless the legislature approves. That sounds good - until you realize that the Department of Homeland Security’s current deadline for even pledging to comply is October 11, 2009.

Pawlenty’s executive order conceded nothing to his state’s legislators, whom he’s treating as dupes.

Turning to Wisconsin, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s (R) advocacy for REAL ID has garnered himself an opponent in the state’s September 9 Republican primary. Jim Burkee, an associate professor of history at Concordia University Wisconsin, has published a thorough piece on REAL ID, titled “‘The Sensenbrenner Tax’ Abandons True Conservatism.”

Rep. Sensenbrenner reportedly soured the Wisconsin Republican Party’s convention by trashing fellow Republicans over their reluctance to go along with the national ID law. A week ago, he leveled a shrill attack on the Wisconsin governor when Governor Doyle (D) announced plans to take more than $20 million out of the state’s REAL ID account and transfer it into the state’s general fund.

Watch this space for more interesting developments.

Rep. Tom Davis, Republican Brand Mangler - Er, Manager

In the opening segment of this week’s Washington Week on PBS, Representative Tom Davis (R-VA) commented on the viability of the Republican party in the upcoming elections: “The Republican brand name - if you were to put this on a dog food - the owners would just take it off the shelf because nobody’s buying it.”

Davis has more than a little responsibility for these circumstances. He’s been a consistent cheerleader of the REAL ID Act, for example, the moribund national ID law. He has consistently pressed and promoted REAL ID. He claimed that imposing $17 billion in costs on state governments is not an unfunded mandate, and pretended like shaking $50 million in federal money loose made any difference. Davis saluted the final regulations when they were issued earlier this year.

In a REAL ID story including Davis, Federal Computer Week saw fit to note that he “represents a Northern Virginia district heavily populated by federal employees and government contractors.”

P.J. O’Rourke comments in the most recent Cato’s Letter: “It took a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives 40 years—from 1954 to 1994—to get … corrupt and arrogant, and the Republicans did it in just 12.” Being wrong on liberty, even in service to your district’s government contractors, is not good for your party’s brand, Mr. Davis.