Re: poly: Pondering Privacy

From: Hal Finney <>
Date: Sun May 17 1998 - 13:38:17 PDT

Responding to Robin's essay at

I agree with many of Robin's points but I think the focus is a bit
narrow, especially in the electronic realm. He seems to be largely
considering rather extreme cases like income tax evasion. But
hopefully electronic communication can counter some of the losses of
existing privacy which Robin describes.

There are two contrary trends here: public spaces are becoming less
private, but more forms of interaction are moving online where greater
privacy is possible. It is difficult to predict which trend will have
the greater impact on the availability of privacy.

Let us suppose that cameras blanket public spaces, with full access to
them by everyone. This is a huge blow to privacy: everywhere you go,
everyone you meet and everything you do in public is universally
known. Everyone will know who your friends are, whose house you
visit, who you go out on dates with.

Robin also suggests that even many "private" gatherings of more than a
few people will be recorded by the participants and made public. But
presumably the source of the recording can be determined from the
point of view of the camera, so if this happens people will know who
did it. It would therefore require a change of mores and expectations
regarding the privacy of such personal meetings in order for them to
be routinely made public, and it's not clear that such a change will
occur. Rather, it may be that as privacy is lost in the public sphere
that people will demand even more privacy behind closed doors, and
anyone who would betray the trust of their friends in this way will
soon not have any.

Even with regard to physical interactions which require public travel,
if they can be replaced with online communication, then there is no
reason to expect that the interaction will be made public. There are
no proposals for infrastructures to record and publish the names of
everyone we are communicating with via email. Even with today's
imperfect security, there are no immediate on-line threats equivalent
to the universal public cameras in the physical realm. This doesn't
require strong cryptographic pseudonyms and protocols which must
defeat the NSA, just ordinary online communications with perhaps some
small security enhancements over what we have today, so as to keep
ordinary online interactions from becoming public knowledge.

It's not clear that the net result will be a significant loss of
privacy. There will be some losses but also some gains. It depends
on how much can be shifted into the online world. If we got to the
point where everyone stayed home all the time and interacted solely
via virtual reality holodecks then public cameras wouldn't be much of
a threat to privacy.

Received on Sun May 17 20:42:59 1998

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