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The Privacy Trade-Off

It’s a safe bet you will have heard, perhaps paraphrased many times over, Benjamin Franklin’s observation: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Why would I make such a bet? Because if you are reading this, you have likely already decided that to arrive at any imaginable safety in this vale of tears you must choose the hazardous road of true liberty. Like Franklin, you will have spent some time contemplating this paradox.

Franklin proposes, for rhetorical effect, a trade-off that founders on its own impossibility. Most of our trade-offs are more mundane. The tensions between Option A and Option B may be less stark, less charged with moral certitude or political necessity on the one hand, less freighted with temporizing and timidity on the other. It may make perfect sense to hang on to one’s life in Cubicle World until a critical mass of capital makes it possible to sever those ties and move on to one’s true home and true work in the world. Trade-offs can be made with a clear understanding of which values will prevail at the end of the day.

What about privacy? This right, as we now think of it — for it is inferred from the Constitution, not asserted in it or directly guaranteed by it — is part and parcel of the American tradition. What might we be tempted to trade for it? Convenience? Sociability?

Those seem to be among the options facing us today, and I have to say I’m continually amazed at choices people make about how much privacy they are willing to trade away for the digital sociability of the Internet. For that matter, in places on the ‘net where my identity more obviously intersects with my “real life,” I’m sure I would amaze others with my apparent transparency.

Despite my sociability on the ‘net (okay, I admit that I am somewhat addicted to Facebook), the idea of broadcasting my location to all and sundry — or even to friends who might not really care to hear I’m at the vet’s office, sitting on my bum writing, or in the supermarket — strikes me as a an extravagance and a risk, if only on the housebreaking level of when-I’m-somewhere-else-I’m-not-here. Yet geolocation is the buzz-feature of the day – a market expecting to quadruple its revenue over the next four years — and I can hardly sign up for more spam without being asked if I want to become instantly trackable in real time.

So why all the outcry over Apple’s supposed tracking and banking and the threat of their possibly marketing the moves of all its iPhone users? Isn’t that what the market wants? As always, it depends on who you ask.

If, for example, you ask Apple, as Congressmen Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Texas did almost a year ago, their general counsel Bruce Sewall might respond: “To provide the high quality products and services that its customers demand, Apple must have access to the comprehensive location-based information.” Sewall goes on to stress the importance of users’ privacy to Apple, then asserts the company’s right, along with its partners and licensees, to collect, use and share customers’ “precise location data,” including GPS information, nearby cell towers and neighboring Wi-Fi networks.

Now hold on, my friend, because I just pulled a fast one on you. Did Sewall write the words “precise location data”? I haven’t seen the whole letter, but I rather doubt it. Those words would have been put in his mouth, I surmise, by a rather breathless writer at International Business Times, who also describes Sewall as explaining “the rationale the company uses to monitor users” when the adjacent quote (see above) is far more general — and in the light of subsequent disclosures, apparently refers to the aggregate and anonymous gathering of data to continually recalibrate the iOS devices’ location-by-triangulation system (fastest) to the GPS system (most accurate).

Now, do I believe every word that comes out of a lawyer’s mouth? Particularly the mouth of the general counsel for a notoriously secretive corporation? Certainly not. I do, however, recognize when he’s doing his job: asserting that his employer has broad rights, and we have narrow ones, and we clicked a screen of electrons to make it official, and anyway it’s all for our own good – all stated in language that is precise when he wants to be precise, and vague when he wants to be vague, because that is what lawyerese is, even when it’s the dumbed-down version they use to communicate with civilians. And none of that translates, except in the minds of the conspiracy-minded or the sensationalist Internet headline writer, into “Apple: We ‘must have’ comprehensive user location data on you” (emphasis added). To which I reply, “You keep using that word ‘comprehensive’. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Whenever the moribund corporate state even appears to take seriously its responsibility to serve the interests of people over profit, the angels in heaven rejoice. Of course Apple should be answerable to the political process that at least nominally protects our privacy. As should Google, which has been caught rather more red-handed in internal correspondence going on about what a dandy asset our location data makes. This is the same Google that recently fired a twenty-seven-year-old engineer for spying on, teasing to the point of harassment or bullying, basically cyberstalking a group of four teens he knew from a school program – including overriding a block one of them placed to end online communication.

Even though nothing as bad as possible happened with the four kids, I call that an outrage. As for the rest of it? I’m sure some of you will have other names for it. I call it, “You pay your money – or accept your ‘free’ ride — and you make your choice.”

And while it is clear that Benjamin Franklin didn’t have the wherewithal to consider these scenarios when he made that observation, as with anything in life, it is amazingly applicable and appropriate.

©2011 Off the Grid News

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