Privacy is Obsolete

We live in a society that is entirely public. Privacy is a thing of the past. (see the Anonymity Experiment) Advertisers and marketers know your shopping habits, your drug prescriptions, your political, religious, and professional sport affiliations. Facebook’s Beacon is only the scapegoat of what any advertiser is frothing at the mouth to implement. The clerks at your grocery store or the people that run the gas station or the car wash are just as likely to steal your credit card number and identity as a random hacker over the internet or some dude scavenging your bills out of your trash can. Anything that can be reproduced digitally will, inevitably and rapidly, end up being illegally distributed over the internet, either for profit, or just for fun.

So why are people still paranoid about privacy and piracy? Fear is only useful when it helps us prevent harm. What’s the point of being afraid of getting salmonella? I don’t need to be afraid of it anymore, I’m just careful around raw food. Loss of privacy is inevitable – you can not prevent it. All you can do is slow it down. I have my cell phone number on my Facebook profile. Yes, I limited my privacy settings so only my virtual “friends” can see it – but if I really didn’t want my cell phone number getting out, I wouldn’t be an IDIOT and put it on the internet. Honestly: how many of you really have a true expectation of privacy when you put any information on the internet? Why be afraid anymore? If you want it private, keep it in your head – nothing else is private. Deal with it.

I’ve talked to a lot of musicians lately, and a lot of them are concerned about their music being pirated. My immediate reaction is always, why? Things are only stolen because they have value. If somebody is stealing your music, it’s because they want it – you don’t suck. That’s wonderful! People want your art! Why would you want to limit your audience? Share the beauty that humans produce with humanity – privacy is selfish.

Let’s say some local aspiring rapper steals your beat and uses it as a hook in his rap song. Maybe a thousand people hear it – maybe it’s only a mediocre song. Perhaps he earned a few hundred bucks from it. Sure, you should be owed some percentage, since he used your intellectual property. But do you really care about (likely no more than) $50 from some local nobody artist? Get a day job if you need $50. However, let’s say some artist steals your beat, and his song turns into the next “Soulja Boy.” Now he’s got millions – and here’s where you might be thinking, “See? He stole my music and now I lost out on all that revenue!”

Our society may be public, but we’re also litigious to a ridiculous extreme. If you can prove that it’s your music – for example, by widely distributing it for free through a medium that can vouch for you – then you’ll win the case, and that rich thief will settle out of court with you for a tidy sum. If you’re crafty enough, you’ll get him to publicly credit you. All of a sudden, you’re rich and famous, because somebody else stole your music. When Kanye and Timbaland come knocking at your door to sample some more of your beats, don’t forget to thank internet piracy.

3 Responses to “Privacy is Obsolete”

  1. 1 actualmusic February 21, 2008 at 9:32 am

    While I certainly see the points you bring up about false expectations of privacy, I view the situation a bit differently. As someone who must constantly juggle a work persona and a personal one, I feel there are ways and methods to keep information on the internet without having it linked to you. I constantly use pseudonyms and acronyms to keep the things that I have online anonymous and not tied directly to me.

    For any site that has my real name or address, or in some way is tied to me, I make sure through a variety of methods that they don’t connect in any way to my “private” information. Things that might identify me in a search have random symbols thrown in to discourage mass searches for ties to me. I agree that the internet, especially considering the growing occurrence of data collection and compilation, is a place of increasingly less privacy, but there are still a good number of methods that can help keep an identity secure.

    As for your view that privacy is selfish and the proliferation of pirated music should lead artists to just give up and let people use it, I couldn’t disagree more. Just because a system is wrong, already established and therefore hard to deal with doesn’t mean people should just roll over and accept it. It’s like saying that since the government is already stagnated in a backwards two party system of corruption, we might as well deal with it as best we can and move on. Why go out and vote when the electoral system decides the President? This is an extreme example, but I use it to make the point that just because a battle appears to be lost doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth fighting. I can understand how ridiculous the DRM movement and piracy clamp downs of the industry are, as we all know that piracy is rampant and if someone wants it, they’ll get it. But that’s from a macro view of big business and labels. On the micro level, artists, especially those not yet discovered or recognized for their work, should want to control their own music, and I can’t blame them for trying.

    On the idea of a sample of your music being used in a hip-hop song…sure it could make you some money, but maybe as an artist you don’t necessarily want to be associated with hip-hop. Or perhaps when someone hears your song, or the hip-hop song it’s looped in, you want them to FIRST think of your song, rather than the hip-hop song that stole it and became big before your version. I’m not saying that it’s not naive to think you’ll be able to protect your own music, I’m saying that the idea of just letting it happen because it is hard to stop is a bad one.

    When it comes to issues of privacy and internet anonymity, there is no question that we’re losing ground. But in my mind, that doesn’t mean we should abandon the fight.

  2. 2 Pete S. February 21, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    Your post seems to be concerned about two separate things:
    – Personal privacy.
    – Protection of intellectual rights.

    The former is very important to me personally, as I’m a rather private individual. I don’t like my personal information or communications being misused by anyone except those who I give consent to (such as an email recipient, or a company I do business with).

    In order to provide services to customers, many companies have legitimate need for one’s personal information. For example:
    – The telephone company needs my name and address to know where to send me a bill. They need to keep a log of all the calls I’ve made and their duration in order to properly bill me for the services I’ve used.
    – My bank needs my name and address to know where to send my statements and bills. It’s also legally required for tax purposes. They need to keep a log of my transactions so they can keep my bank balance accurate. When I use my credit card, they need to keep records of this so they can bill me, and they need to know what merchants I purchased things from so they can send the money to that merchant.
    – My doctor needs my name and address to identify me and send me any documents. They need to know my medical history and symptoms so they can accurately diagnose and treat any medical conditions I have.
    – The law requires that the DMV exist, and that they maintain records of title and registration for my vehicle, so as to prove who owns the car and that I’ve paid any legally-required fees, taxes, etc. In Arizona, insurance companies also report to the DMV if you have insurance coverage.
    – My employer needs my name, address, and social security number so they can properly report my earnings to the IRS as required by law for tax purposes.

    These are all reasonable uses of personal information, and many of these uses (bank, doctor, tax paying) have been around for decades, if not centuries. There generally shouldn’t be any objection to these sorts of uses.

    One of the reasons it seems like one has less privacy than before is because one subscribes to so many different services that require certain information. For example, here’s a brief list of what I subscribe to and what information they have:
    – Web hosting. (Name, address, billing information, records of visitors to site.)
    – Email hosting. (Name, address, all my email.)
    – Banking. (Name, address, credit history, financial information, transaction history.)
    – Doctor. (Not really a subscription, but they have my name, address, and medical information.)
    – Telephone company. (Name, address, billing information, calling history.)
    – Cellphone company. (Name, address, billing information, calling history, general physical location of telephone.)
    – Cable internet service. (Name, address, billing information, ability to monitor all my internet traffic [email, web browsing, VoIP phone calls, etc.].)
    – Insurance company. (Name, address, billing information, claim history, records of possession of certain property [car, for example].)
    – Apartment complex. (Name, address, billing information, credit history, [lack of] criminal record.)
    – DMV. (Name, address, billing information, list of vehicles owned, insurance status, [lack of] criminal history, photograph, driving history.)
    – World of Warcraft. (Name, address, billing information, amount of time played online, records of in-game communications.)

    I’m sure there are others, but that’s just what I can think of.

    There are three main threats to personal privacy these days:
    – Companies that misuse information.
    – Criminals.
    – Government.

    I’ll go into more detail below:
    Most companies that people do business with, like banks, allow for customers to choose how their information is used. If they misuse this information, they can (and have) been sued. Other companies, like Choicepoint and the credit bureaus act as a centralized distribution point for various data (Do you own a home? Do you have a criminal record? How creditworthy are you?) about an individual (see here to find out all the information Choicepoint has about you). This information is frequently part of some public record (such as home ownership status), or serves some legitimate need (criminal record, creditworthiness, etc.) that a company you do business with would have a need to know.

    Obviously, if such a company were to misuse that information, it could prove harmful. I’m not sure what procedures exist for individuals to request that certain information be removed from those records or to correct records, but I’m sure there are some things in place. Similarly, there exist various rules and laws relating to the misuse of personal information and what sort of restitution one is entitled to if that information is misused.

    For other companies, like the grocery store, there’s no requirement to provide accurate information. Safeway has a fake name and no address for me, yet I still get all their discounts — I don’t care if they know that “Ben Franklin” got a case of soda, some bread, and a gallon of milk. It doesn’t tie back to me.

    My barbershop requires that I provide a name and telephone number in order to get my haircut. I refuse, as it’s none of their damned business. They usually just pick some other poor sap from the list of customers in the computer, or I end up giving them the name of a dead president and the number for directory assistance.

    If you’re really concerned, pay cash where possible.

    If the companies don’t have the information in the first place, they can’t misuse it.


    Protecting one’s information from criminals is pretty easy. Just don’t fall for scams (they’re usually pretty obvious), crosscut shred any document you’re throwing out (even junk mail and other stuff, as it dilutes the value of the shredded documents — if it were all important, personal stuff, a criminal might find it worthwhile to piece everything back together. If it’s diluted with non-personal stuff, it’ll be a huge pain.), and don’t give out any information you don’t have to.

    If you’re really concerned, shred your important documents, then burn them in a fireplace. No way to reconstruct those documents.


    Protecting one’s information from the government is a bit harder. Certain information, like the DMV records and tax information, is required by law to be disclosed to the government. Not much you can do about that, but not much of it is really all that personal: ok, so the government knows you have a car. Whoopee. They know you earned a certain amount of money last year…well, you need to tell them that anyway when you’re paying taxes, so it’s not a big deal. Those are legitimate government uses of personal information, and not really a big deal.

    More recent activities are a bit more troublesome: the wholesale warrantless monitoring of telephone and internet communications, increasing numbers of cameras in public places, and so on. The former is a major concern of mine — I have a reasonable expectation of privacy when I’m communicating with another person. It’s nobody’s business what I say in phone calls or emails. Indeed, I have a constitutional right to privacy (see the 4th Amendment). If the government decides it’s their business, procedures exist (such as getting warrants) for the lawful interception of such communications. However, the agency wanting to do the monitoring must ask permission from a judge, show good reason why they should be granted that permission, and may have other limits applied by the judge.

    Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Things have changed recently, and that troubles me. Now I must take active measures, such as encrypting important emails, to ensure the privacy of my messages.


    As for intellectual rights management, I don’t believe it’s unreasonable for someone to expect reasonable compensation for the product of their labor. If a musician creates a song, it’s not unreasonable for the musician to ask for payment (or permission) for the use of their song. It should be up to the creator to decide how their work is used.


    In conclusion, there are any number of perfectly legitimate uses of personal information to provide for goods or services (see previous examples). It simply seems like we have less privacy these days because most people choose to subscribe to a variety of services that legitimately require one’s personal information to provide that service.

    Ideally, I’d like to see the United States adopt strong data-protection laws like many European countries. Nobody should be able to access or use one’s personal information without permission from that individual, unless there is some legitimate compelling reason why it should be accessible without permission (like tax information being provided to the government, a lawful warrant, etc.).

    Yes, the government is taking some very big steps in what I feel to be the wrong direction when it comes to personal privacy. Hopefully this can be rectified, and the government put in their place. While no immeidate harm may come from the current government having access to this information, it could prove troublesome indeed if future governments used this wealth of information for inappropriate, even harmful purposes. For example, having the government listen to all telephone calls right now might not be a big deal, but a future government might use this ability to suppress free speech, identify “troublemakers”, and otherwise maintain it’s grip on power (see “V for Vendetta”).

    My sincere apologies for the length of this comment. I didn’t intend for it to be this long, but such is life. If you choose to reply and feel the need to quote this message, just use short excerpts.


  3. 3 Pete S. February 21, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    Oh, one more quick thing — the “website” link in my posts goes to a spamtrap system that’s meant to identify and track comment spammers, email address harvesters, and spammers.

    It’s not meant for regular human viewing, and might actually help cut down on spam in the future. đŸ™‚

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