TOC Privacy Blackmailed Your Turn

August 7, 2007

As a wit once remarked, we are betrayed by friends, not enemies. Beware, may I add, of reasonable people. I have already written about European negotiations with search engine companies and the legalization of insider trading. It is now time to expose the weapon favored by dangerously reasonable people.

Take national security for example. As James Risen tells us, President Bush has just legalized eavesdropping without a warrant as long as one of the correspondents is "reasonably believed to be overseas" (*)(1). Dangerously reasonable people appeal to our reason. They know that surveillance without a warrant is in the top ten tools of successful dictators. They will readily admit this measure is a blow against individual privacy rights. But real life is built on trade-offs and we are asked in essence whether improved domestic security is not worth this sacrifice. Given the choice, only unreasonable people will forgo this simple way to spy on potential terrorists.

The stakes are not always as high. In a recent article (**), John Reed analyses the efforts of the UK insurance industry to lower premiums on drivers whose car usage fits low risk patterns. The catch is that drivers must allow their cars to be monitored at all times for verification purposes. Here again the attack on privacy is frontal. While duly reporting the soothing remarks of industry representatives, John Reed informs us "as well as keeping a record of drivers' whereabouts, the devices can also potentially monitor how well or badly they drive and beam the information back to insurers". Such a loss of privacy however is but the price an individual has to pay for a financial gain. Another reasonable trade-off.

The trick dangerously reasonable people play on us consists in framing their proposal as a choice between two possibilities, one of which is favored by reason. It is a trick as old as the hills. When a thief shouts "Your money or your life", reasonable people will give away their money. Highwaymen and thugs are of course a bit crude. "Your money for my silence", as suggested by blackmailers, is closer to the mark for us who live in the "Ad, Ad, Ad, Ad World" where advertisers crave an ever finer knowledge of personal profiles as described by Louise Story (***).

The solution, for there is a solution, is to refuse to be framed. Privacy does not have to be the poor choice of some devilish trade-off. For concrete propositions, see some of my earlier fillips (e.g. 6/20/2006 and 6/6/2006).

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ..... Bush Signs Law To Widen Reach For Wiretapping, by James Risen (New-York Times) - August 6, 2007
  • (**) ... Rewards for a lack of drive, by John Reed (Financial Times) - August 1, 2007
  • (***) . It's an Ad, Ad, Ad, Ad World, by Louise Story (New-York Times) - August 6, 2007
  • (1) Protect America Act of 2007
August 2007
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