by Eileen | 3:03 pm, January 15, 2013 | Comments Off
I do not have children. I think a lot of people who have children share more information about those kids than they ought to. And I think some of those child-having people start to develop a frightening tendency to hoover up every morsel of information and then blast it back out. At some other point, I may work out some thoughts on how shepherding innocent children through a fragile world leads to an obsession with having information about other people.
This, however, is a political blog and I am here to tell you all about the appropriate of gossip, already a nasty pastime, to serve political ends.
Gossip is waging the war on privacy under a veneer of friendship. Even when the gossip is your grandmother. Or, somebody’s grandmother.
We go now to Minnesota. That Al Franken is a United States Senator makes me wonder if the lakes there are deeper than the political thought. I jest. I have nothing against Minnesota. Like all Coloradans, I’m just envious of people who have more water than they could ever use. And, though a moonbat in many ways, Al Franken has been a better friend to privacy than many of his comrades. The same may not be true of his party.
I speak, naturally of the Grandma Brigade of the Minnesota Democratic Farm Labor Party. Which is the same thing as the Democratic Party, only with more words and Garrison Keillor. It seems these sweet little old ladies are forcing the conversation on what happens when new media gets really granular. Imagine a pensioner with oodles of time who peruses photos of political rallies for people she knows and makes diligent lists of the authors of ‘letters to the editors’ along with the opinions expressed therein and will rat you out to the party if you speak against affirmative action over the salad course.
All that data then gets passed on the DFL, which then diligently passes it on the Democratic National Committee. Which is the same thing as the Democratic Party, only with different letters and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’s hair. While that crispity-crunchy rat’s nest is firmly stuck in 1991, the DNC itself is strikingly modern about politics and the applications of technology to politics. As ever, policy and ethics play catch-up.
Some of what the Grandma Brigade does sounds creepier on first pass than it might be. Let’s say I go to a libertarian rally and some lefty recognizes me in a photo. Well, I publicly identified myself as a libertarian and wasn’t it one of the points of my attendance and participation to align myself with libertarianism and to draw publicity to that cause? What if I write an opinion letter to a paper? Most papers have a policy of verifying the identity of writers before publishing their letters and publishing the writer’s name. Opportunities to publish opinions anonymously abound and if the newspaper wants to put a stipulation on how they will allow you to use them as a podium, they may do so both legally and ethically. If you want the reach of a major paper plus anonymity, you better start building up your own blog.
Obviously, there are lots of people, many employed or represented by the DNC, trying to end the ability to write anonymously. It is getting harder to remain anonymous if a technologically clever or resource-heavy operation decides they want to know who you are. And it’s a false dichotomy to insist that people should live in a cave or be presumed to have given blanket approval to any and every use of their personal information. History is replete with proof that it’s a poor idea to let political parties get away with watching their members all the time. Privacy is heavily normative. Influential actors, the DNC certainly belonging to that group, can reshape our privacy attitudes simply by engaging in something long enough and heavily enough that it becomes standard operating procedure. We humans tend to think that what’s done as the usual course of action is right. And the evil people, if they’re smart, use that against us. A privacy erosion become codified as legally and culturally acceptable simply because someone has gotten away with it before.
That very thing is on evidence with the Grandma Brigade; the group’s founder flatly said, ‘Is it any different than having Best Buy have it for you? It’s out there.” Yes, yes, I know. Her grammar is terrible. So what, she’s still dangerous. For her, the reality that other organizations are taking, compiling, and using information about people to make money off those people, that such a practice goes on without the ability of people to know, object, or prevent it, is all that matters. It happens, therefore it is right. She lacks the moral ability to imagine that there is ‘mere custom’ and then there is what is ‘right in itself’.
Legally, this is reflected in the Expectation of Privacy. There is a subjective expectation of privacy – did you expect, and did you behave in a way that indicates you expected, privacy? That is part of the test of the objective or legal EoP, which is what people are referring to when then capitalize the phrase. But legal EoP also considers if you should have known you didn’t really have privacy. What does not get much, if any, pull in these decisions is the, admittedly diaphanous, idea of whether you should have had privacy. A court is likely to say you have no EoP at a political rally because it was held outside and press were present. They just won’t care about what it means to free expression if the government and powerful political parties are keeping tabs on who attends events to support a minority position.
On this count, we’re in a transitory place in privacy rights. Things we have never had to think about before are suddenly pressing matters. The speed with which information moves and the ability of computers to analyze massive stores of data in almost no time, to identify subtle patterns, to make accurate predictions about the behavior of individuals, and to re-identify people in what we thought was ‘anonyomized’ data all mean that it’s not enough to have been one of a many at a giant event, or to have used a fake name when signing in. Even the hoodie-sunglasses-bandanna combo so beloved of rioters and baby anarchists is passe – we live in an age of computers than can identify you by one frame of an exposed earlobe, or by your gait.
In fact, exploding surveillance capabilities bring this issue to a very fine point. We are either in an age where surveillance is so easy and so cheap that the ‘should’ carries no weight against the ‘could’, or we are in an age where law and moral norms are the only thing that can keep the last, frail wall of intimacy from crumbling. I suppose it depends on how cynical you are about human nature. Once, privacy was assured in many realms because it was so damn difficult and expensive to spy on the average person. You needed massive resources, lots of time, and an enduring motivation to put together the kind of dossiers that almost generate themselves these days. Those hurdles no longer exist. All that really keeps us anonymous is making sure no one is interested in us. The government gets every datapoint it can in ongoing dragnet surveillance. If they ever get interested in you, massive sensitive information is already in their databases; they need only query you. You’re already being passively datamined morning, noon, and night. Not only is the state the biggest norm-setter of them all, it’s made up of, and made up by, people who won elections. The way a political party behaves is closely linked to the sort of governance we get. The party that will spy on you to get elected will use its power to spy on you more.
Powerful people come down on the side of telling us to get over the loss of any real ability to be anonymous in anything we do outside our home. They tout the praises, some debatable, of such systemic data capture and dismiss the concerns with a wave of the hand. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves to give serious consideration to modifying our privacy laws to recognize the reality of cutting edge technology rather than telling humans to accommodate themselves to a legal regime rendered useless.
The examples I used above concern people who knowingly and freely publicly aligned themselves with a cause, people who sought attention to share their political opinions. Maybe our traditional ideas of EoP hold in those cases. Maybe technology means we need to reconsider what a real EoP is in 2013. But it gets worse. You will recall I opened by chastising gossipy old ladies who take things told to them in confidence and use that information for their own gain. The other part of the Grandma Brigade’s work, the really and truly creepy part, is that the participants of this project freely admit to keeping records of things told to them privately – political opinions expressed over dinner, in emails, on private social profiles – and passing that on.
One thing we can know from this is that these are people who, whether or not they realize it, are giving more loyalty to their political party then to their friends and family. A pat on the head from the local DFL office is more valuable than being trusted by the people closest to them. Such stuff tears at the fabric of every truly meaningful relationship we can have. People who imagine they are having a private exchange with a trusted intimate may not even know what’s happening with their data; thus, they are violated a second time by being deliberately robbed of any ability to protest their commodification.
To justify such intrusion on the grounds that data means votes and that people will benefit more by having lots of Democrats in power than they suffer by losing privacy is the height of patronizing contempt. But, ‘patronizing contempt’ is the same as the DNC, only without proper nouns.
Now, if only we could decide that such a level of data-gathering is vulgar and cheap and start calling for heads. Only, Democrats aren’t doing this just for the hell of it. They’re doing it to win elections and it seems to be working rather well.
Knowledge is power. Knowledge about other people is power over other people. Knowledge, in the form of granular datasets, has been a big component of Democratic success in recent cycles and is an area where the GOP sorely needs to build capability. But here we are presented with a race to the bottom. At least in Minnesota, the Democratic Party is willing to do anything to get data about voters. Must the Republicans go there to win? The Republicans are hardly full of good ideas and wisdom in governance. On this angle, it’s a question of jettisoning morality so that the mostly-bastards can get more votes than the full-bastards. Is there another way? Making electoral politics into an exercise in Orwellianism will only ensure that both parties will be even more bastard-laden then they already are. Screwing over the voters on privacy in order to gain power makes it obvious as a banana on a pool table that American politicians are after power as an end in itself; you can’t treat people like garbage and then honestly claim to did it in order to serve the people.
I admit I am engaging in something of an academic debate. We need only look to the PATRIOT Act and its kin to know the GOP is no bastion of privacy advocacy, or even of balanced consideration of civil liberties against competing factors. They might not have been the ones who came up with anything so sleazy as having little old ladies report on the political sensibilities of the bridge club, but that doesn’t mean they have any moral reticence on the issue. Some people manage not to be the biggest tits in the room only because they’re lazy.
If I saw this article, then lots of righting operatives did, too. And at least a few of them started wondering how soon they could start pumping their own grannies for gossip. The GOP’s glaring data gap could easily cause victory-hungry operatives to adopt anything without considering the implications. Democrats got so much right, but if that party is openly encouraging volunteers to behave like Staasi informants, that’s not a step we should mimic.
After all, it would be nice to maintain a little daylight between the two parties.
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