March 23, 2004

Privacy in the news

Posted by shonk at 11:03 PM in Politics | TrackBack

From Wired, two recent articles related to privacy issues. One, “Privacy Maven Now Works for Feds”, talks about how Lisa Dean, Washington liaison for the estimable Electronic Frontier Foundation, has a new job with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Dean was the one who was calling for Congressional intervention in the TSA’s controversial CAPPS-II passenger profiling and cross-indexing program. Instead of doing anything particularly useful (like, oh, say, stopping the damn thing), it looks like Dean will be writing a “strong”, “broad” and “fair” privacy policy for CAPPS-II, there’s no doubt in my mind that, when push comes to shove, that privacy policy will be little more than window dressing (see also the Tenth Amendment). The real question is this: will Dean become a scapegoat in the privacy community, or will she be considered a hero for her compromising ways? Of course, I have the same questions about whoever takes the Department of Homeland Security’s newest job.

Speaking of Amendments and window-dressing (this time the Fourth and Fifth), the “Supremes Weigh In on ID Debate” - specifically, the case of a Nevada man, Larry “Dudley” Hiibel, who was convicted of resisting arrest for refusing to give his name or show ID in an encounter with police. The Nevada attorney general gives the expected argument that “identifying yourself is a neutral act”. The obvious next question:

But if that is allowed, several justices asked, what will be next? A fingerprint? Telephone number? E-mail address? What about a national identification card?

Of course, the issue isn’t really the name per se, it’s what databases like CAPPS-II will associate with that name, and everybody knows it. As Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says:

A name is now no longer a simple identifier; it is the key to a vast, cross-referenced system of public and private databases, which lay bare the most intimate features of an individual’s life.

An argument between a man and his daughter in a pickup on the side of a rural road isn’t probable cause for arrest, but an argument between a convicted felon and his daughter or an Iranian national and his daughter in the same pickup might well be. Hell, even peace-loving nuns get red-flagged by the computers.

Of course, the apologists see nothing wrong with requiring names, IDs, whatever. After all, as Justice Scalia said in the hearings, “I cannot imagine any responsible citizen would have objected to giving the name.” That’s right, you’re at best an irresponsible citizen and probably a terrorist sympathizer or liberal pantywaist wit something to hide if you have some concerns about letting your name be run through the federal database just because some rural cop got bored with radar-gunning traffic and drinking coffee. After all, it’s not like the computers ever make mistakes or anything.