September 20, 2020

Privacy Technology vs. Privacy Laws

Politech reprints an anonymous, somewhat overheated essay arguing for a technology-only approach to privacy, as opposed to one based on laws. It’s easy to dismiss an essay like this just because of its obnoxious tone. But we should be skeptical of its ideas too.

Certainly, we ought to use privacy-enhancing technology when it is available, and we should try to figure out what we can do technologically to keep information from falling into the hands of people we don’t trust.

The problem is that out here in the real world we often do have to hand over information in order to live our lives. I have to tell my doctor about my health; and I have to tell my pharmacy about my prescriptions. How am I to keep my medical information out of the wrong hands? A law might help.

Even the most basic rights of citizenship cannot be exercised without disclosing information. To vote, you have to tell the government where you live, and you have to show them ID (which means you have to disclose more information to an ID-issuing agency). If you buy land, that land holding is a matter of public record, along with the price you paid for it.

And what about taxes? The tax authorities require you to disclose all sorts of information about your finances, including any anonymous offshore accounts you might have. Unless you lie to them, they’ll find out everything. And lying is, to say the least, problematic. First, there’s a chance of getting caught. Second, you have, or ought to have, moral qualms about lying. Third, underreporting your income is unfair to your fellow taxpayers (or at least the honest ones) who will end up paying more because of your lie. Fourth, if many people lie, this will trigger an increase in invasive auditing and enforcement activity, which raises new privacy problems.

Now maybe we should have a tax system that requires less disclosure. Probably the author of the essay would think so. And how are we going to get such a system? By passing laws, that’s how.

In fighting for privacy, we need to hold technology in our left hand and law in our right. We can’t afford to fight the battle one-handed.