The Economist on Privacy and Surveillance

Great article from The Economist on data collection, privacy, surveillance, and the future.

Here’s the conclusion:

If the erosion of individual privacy began long before 2001, it has accelerated enormously since. And by no means always to bad effect: suicide-bombers, by their very nature, may not be deterred by a CCTV camera (even a talking one), but security wonks say many terrorist plots have been foiled, and lives saved, through increased eavesdropping, computer profiling and “sneak and peek” searches. But at what cost to civil liberties?

Privacy is a modern “right.” It is not even mentioned in the 18th-century revolutionaries’ list of demands. Indeed, it was not explicitly enshrined in international human-rights laws and treaties until after the second world war. Few people outside the civil-liberties community seem to be really worried about its loss now.

That may be because electronic surveillance has not yet had a big impact on most people’s lives, other than (usually) making it easier to deal with officialdom. But with the collection and centralisation of such vast amounts of data, the potential for abuse is huge and the safeguards paltry.

Ross Anderson, a professor at Cambridge University in Britain, has compared the present situation to a “boiled frog”—which fails to jump out of the saucepan as the water gradually heats. If liberty is eroded slowly, people will get used to it. He added a caveat: it was possible the invasion of privacy would reach a critical mass and prompt a revolt.

If there is not much sign of that in Western democracies, this may be because most people rightly or wrongly trust their own authorities to fight the good fight against terrorism, and avoid abusing the data they possess. The prospect is much scarier in countries like Russia and China, which have embraced capitalist technology and the information revolution without entirely exorcising the ethos of an authoritarian state where dissent, however peaceful, is closely monitored.

On the face of things, the information age renders impossible an old-fashioned, file-collecting dictatorship, based on a state monopoly of communications. But imagine what sort of state may emerge as the best brains of a secret police force—a force whose house culture treats all dissent as dangerous—perfect the art of gathering and using information on massive computer banks, not yellowing paper.

Posted on October 2, 2007 at 11:14 AM25 Comments


derf October 2, 2007 12:11 PM

We haven’t revolted over taxes in a couple of hundred years, but taxes are much more onerous now then they were at the Boston Tea Party. Why would we revolt over CCTV, the TSA, or the thought police if we won’t revolt over being robbed by Uncle Sam every payday?

Amit Upadhyay October 2, 2007 12:25 PM

The failure of security experts when it comes to privacy:

There are two kind of people one who considers privacy as a very important thing, and another who wonders what is so wrong in some people knowing your password or reading your email once in a while. For the second kind there is no simple explanation of why privacy is so important.

I have tried to write the privacy implication for mass surveillance/data-gathering, which according to me is the only real threat to privacy at

Privacy is not a fundamental right or some holy grail, its a practical consideration. The practicality aspect is completely lost in all the discussion about privacy.

ARM October 2, 2007 12:32 PM

If privacy is the ability to keep one’s activities secret from others, it should be understood that privacy has a purpose – to avoid being sanctioned (either socially or legally) for certain actions, or disseminating information about you that may be used against you. This purpose may also be served by other means – if I express absolutely no issues with anything you do, or am reliable prevented from exacting a consequence for your actions, the fact that I know what you’ve been doing is immaterial. By the same token, if I can’t injure you with information that I have about you, it doesn’t make a difference what I know.

This, I think is part of the reason that many people don’t get up in arms about their loss of privacy – there are no negative consequences that they understand to be directly attributable to corporations or government knowing what they are doing. If I go surfing for nudie pics, my ISP will know – but since they’re unlikely to tell anyone who will care, the fact that they know will make little difference to me.

Until the “trusting indifference” of the public is eroded or shattered, privacy won’t be on the minds of people who don’t see themselves as targets.

And many of the people who do place a high value on privacy come off as being paranoid. There is an anti-war protest every Saturday, about five miles from my apartment, out on a street corner. They’ve kept this up as long as the war has been going on, but they still get twitchy when people show up with cameras, or otherwise show an interest in what’s going on. (It’s interesting, but this varies somewhat by gender – men seem less bothered by attention than women.) This despite the fact that they set up less than 50 yards from a police station, and no one has ever been so much as told to keep off the grass. But they still feel that passers-by who take interest might be working for the government, and are setting them up for punishment. People like this don’t help the cause of privacy rights any.

Marty Busse October 2, 2007 12:40 PM

How has mass surveillance made dealing with government officials easier? It takes a lot of effort to get any film of government officials, and in most of the cases I can think of where CCTV and the like caught government officials doing wrong, they fought very hard to keep that film from being released.

Then there are the cases where the footage with the De Menezies shooting in the UK.

IMHO, the proliferation of surveillance seems to have resulted in a lot more scrutiny of the public, and a lot more protection for officials from any consequence of any malfeasance they commit.

Cerebus October 2, 2007 12:47 PM

Privacy is not an invented right; it’s implicit in the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th amendments.

Indeed, Giswold v. Connecticut held explicitly that privacy was a fundamental right implicit in the US Constitution, citing extensive case law findings on a right to privacy.

The Economist can put scare quotes around it all they want but it won’t change the facts found in law. And pontification from one right-wing nutcase’s blog who read Roe v. Wade without reading Griswold doesn’t change it either.

FP October 2, 2007 12:55 PM

“Many terrorist plots have been foiled, and lives saved, through increased eavesdropping, computer profiling and ‘sneak and peek’ searches.”

That and similar statements are being repeated ad nauseam. Where’s the proof?

I would be less worried about each measure if the separation of concerns was preserved: when a judge agrees to probable cause and issues a warrant, the police goes in and gathers evidence that is then presented to judge and jury.

4th Amendment October 2, 2007 1:47 PM

@Rionn Fears Malechem

“We do have an amendment which protects us from unreasonable search.”

Not really. You can still be unreasonably searched at any time. What the 4th protects you from is being successfully prosecuted (years later at your trial) and convicted based on the results of that unreasonable search.

4th isn’t gonna help much in providing you privacy.

Lee October 2, 2007 2:02 PM

@Death of Useful Encryption

That law came in in 2000, if the data would incriminate you you might still be better off taking the 2 years for failing to decrypt.

In this case multiple layers of encryption or secondary keys could still be used (if you are that way inclined).

Kadin2048 October 2, 2007 2:08 PM

I’ve read Griswold and Roe and most of the other cases that are critical to the evolution of the “penumbra argument” (that’s the way the ‘Right to Privacy’ is created, via the “penumbra” of the enumerated rights in the Constitution), and none of them really do anything to undermine the critical flaw of modern jurisprudence: the areas into which government can intrude has been rewritten as anything where there is a “compelling state interest,” rather than the original, negative view, where the State had certain zones of action and the rest was left up to individuals (via the 9th Amendment).

I can’t think of any single phrase that has expanded the role of government more than the “compelling interest” doctrine (although the abuse of ‘interstate commerce’ comes close), and it’s one that has virtually no basis prior to Holden v Hardy in 1898 and Lochner in 1905. It’s an invented doctrine, and it’s the beginning of the path where the courts decided to ignore the Constitution as written in favor of personal ideologies, rhetoric, and convenience.

The key is the switch from the positive enumeration of government powers (government can do x, y, and z, but nothing else) to a negative enumeration (government cannot do a, b, and c, but can do anything else). As soon as you’ve turned that corner, you just need to whittle down the prohibitions.

Death of Useful Encryption October 2, 2007 2:14 PM


“Individuals who are believed to have the cryptographic keys necessary for such decryption will face up to 5 years in prison for failing to comply with police or military orders to hand over either the cryptographic keys.”

How do you prove to the Enforcer’s satisfaction that you don’t know nor have the keys?

So you can go to prison in the UK based on what law enforcement thinks you know? That doesn’t sound like a free country.

Anonymous October 2, 2007 7:41 PM

I think part of the issue in getting the masses to buy into protecting privacy is that governments have become more savvy to marketing. Millions of people go to McDonald’s every day despite the well known fact that their food is unhealthy. Millions similarly pick up the smoking habit. Why? Because it’s cool, sexy, and all the other superlatives.
Similarly, as long as politicians wrap bogus laws in the rhetoric of “reasonable steps to safeguard our children/air travel/cities/etc” people will believe those encroachments on civil liberties are “reasonable and common-sense.”
Politicians have been selling the public on “compromise” legislation, even where no compromise was really made, for years.

CJ October 3, 2007 1:17 AM

@ARM: “if I express absolutely no issues with anything you do, or am reliable prevented from exacting a consequence for your actions, the fact that I know what you’ve been doing is immaterial. By the same token, if I can’t injure you with information that I have about you, it doesn’t make a difference what I know”

I don’t agree. You know. That’s enough. If you know someone’s embarrassing (but not illegal) secret, it doesn’t matter if you don’t tell anyone else, or pass judgement on it. You know, and that is an injury in itself.

Colossal Squid October 3, 2007 4:48 AM

As far as I know, while the RIP act was drafted in 2000, this third part about disclosing keys has only just been signed into law.
Link here:

According to Heise Security limits to jurisdictional reach mean that keys and data held outside the UK are not subject to this. Therefore one possible workaround would be an offshore server holding your keys. SSH into the server, scp your key, decrypt your data in the UK.

RIPA October 3, 2007 5:48 AM

@Death of Useful Encryption

Last time I check it was still a judicial decision on who is believed to have the key. Law enforement/military are allowed to present their opinion of course.

MathFox October 3, 2007 6:50 AM

FP, an article about the conviction rate of “terrorism suspects”:

“An analysis of the Justice Department’s own list of terrorism prosecutions by The Washington Post shows that 39 people — not 200, as officials have implied — were convicted of crimes related to terrorism or national security.

Most of the others were convicted of relatively minor crimes such as making false statements and violating immigration law — and had nothing to do with terrorism, the analysis shows.”

Armchair Dissident October 3, 2007 8:35 AM

The problem with the “privacy is not in the US consitution” argument, is simply that the capability for such large-scale intrusions into a person’s private life simply could not be imagined when the US consitution was framed, nor could large-scale gathering and storing of data.

A good example is the invention of the telephone: the 4th amendment guarantees that the government may not enter your property and seize personal effects without a warrant. When the constitution was written this effectively prohibited the government from “listening in” on private correspondence. With the invention of the telephone the government could simply claim that as you didn’t own the wire that the personal correspondence was being transmitted on, that intrusion was not protected, simply because the telephone was inconceivable when the constitution was written.

Now, all of a sudden, you have an issue of what a private correspondence is: a “right” to privacy that was otherwise reasonably assumed to be in place by prohibiting the government from taking the physical objects that made private correspondence possible, or by entering your house and directly listening to two people speak.

So, yes, it’s not mentioned by word in the US constitution, but only because it was inconceivable at the time that it would ever be required.

Benjamin Franklin October 3, 2007 8:50 AM

@ 4th Ammendment and Rionn Fears Malechem:

4th ammendment won’t protect you is right. It’s been gutted entirely…and the “new” version was given a catchy title to make you feel proud that you’ve lost basic rights.

More here:

“Those who would give up liberty for a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety, and will lose both.”

FP October 3, 2007 9:24 AM


That article does not say whether any of the suspects were found through eavesdropping, profiling or warrantless searches, or whether any such intelligence gathered was used in court.

Therefore, the article doesn’t support the “lives were saved” argument either, not even for the few successful terrorist convictions.

MathFox October 3, 2007 2:17 PM

FP, there is so much secret… We don’t know how many people were rounded up in “terrorist investigation” and let go (or sent out on “immigration” issues) after interrogation. There must have been more than 200 privacy violations… and still only 39 convictions. I seriously doubt that many attacks were foiled, could just have been “terrorists” donating money to build a Palestinian hospital.

David October 3, 2007 8:22 PM

I continue to believe that we should argue for reciprocity, and not worry so much about what “they” know. If the watcher’s windows are curtainless as well, then we have accountability, abuse is mitigated, and the playing field leveled.

It’s not surveillance that scares me; it is “state secrets”.

Adrian October 4, 2007 7:09 AM

That good ‘ol boiled frog gets a lot of mention in a lot of places, pity that it doesn’t exist. A few studies have been done and it doesn’t matter how slowly you heat the water — once it gets to uncomfortable, the frog gets out.

Urban myth.

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