Tuesday, November 20, 2007

ink-impressed tek-biz bound-bulk-pulp review “The Limits of Privacy” by Amitai Etzioni


With this present post, I’ve now reduced the still-gotta-finish-this-book stack to an illustrated history of Peanuts (key take-away: this classic 50-year strip hit a new plateau when Snoopy, in the late 50s, started to stand on his hind legs, dance, verbalize, and serve as wild-card for any flight of Schulz’ imagination); a detailed history of Fairfax County, Virginia (key take-away: the site where my wife and I work out was, before the Civil War, a large day-laborer market for freed slaves and for slaveholders seeking to rent out their chattel); and Joseph Campbell’s “Myths to Live By” (key take-away: he was a devotee of Carl Jung, and he didn’t much care for hippies). No…I won’t blog further on those titles (or will I?).

Now to the reviewed book of the day. “The Limits of Privacy” came free from the author, a political science professor at George Washington University. I met Amitai Etzioni last summer at the birthday party for privacy advocate Marc Rotenberg (director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center) in Washington DC. It was a good discussion, over potluck, followed by a mutual exchange of business cards. A week or so later, Etzioni’s book arrived in the postal mail with a note: “Please accept this publication with compliments of: The Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies. If you wish to consult with Amitai Etzioni, he may be reached at (202) 994-8190.” I pass this along to you my readers in case you need such services. Sending me the book itself, transmitted from his gratisphere to mine, was the best service that Etzioni could have rendered.

“The Limits of Privacy” is a brilliant dissection of current legal, regulatory, policy, economic, and cultural issues surrounding the issue of privacy protection. It was published in 1999 but still feels fresh, thanks in large part to the solid analysis at its core, laying out a clear and practical set of principles for balancing privacy concerns against “common good” imperatives such as public safety and health. The book has been sitting on my dresser for several months now, inviting me to pick it up, glance this or that chapter again, and put it down for future browsing. That’s not a limitation of the tome—it’s a strength—always something there to tickle the cerebral cortex with new insights. I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to blog on it.

Though written for public policy wonks, it is very much a tek-biz book. First off, many of the current privacy controversies that Etzioni discusses revolve around applications of information technology: e.g., strong encryption, biometric identifiers, national ID cards, medical records disclosure procedures, web-based publication of convicted sex offender identities/addresses, etc. Second, he identifies large corporations—or as he calls them, “Big Bucks”—as the primary violators of privacy, and is less concerned about government agencies, which he refers to by the Orwellian “Big Brother.” Consequently, he’s far more concerned about overzealous big-biz interests trampling on people’s privacy—remember, this book was published two years before 9/11, during the first dotcom bubble…so keep that historical context in mind…though his concerns are still valid.

However, Etzioni is no privacy-absolutist libertarian or “cypherpunk” (yes, Kim Cameron, this is a real word/movement…or, at least, was back then in the late great 90s….see p. 97 of Etzioni’s book). In fact, Etzioni takes pains to distance himself from the privacy absolutist camp. He’s a different species entirely: a “communitarian,” who believes that the privacy zealots, though well-meaning, have gotten out of hand and need to be counterbalanced by a co-equal emphasis on compelling “common good” concerns that may, in specific circumstances, justify limits on privacy (hence the title of the book). Per pp 195-196:

  • Etzioni: “Contemporary champions of privacy often still employ arguments that treat privacy as either an unbounded or privileged good….The negative consequences, however, of treating privacy and other individual rights as sacrosanct have been largely ignored by those who draw on legal conceptions fashioned in earlier ages….[In] American society after 1960….[t]he realms of rights, private choice, self-interest, and entitlement were expanded and extended, but corollary social responsibilities and commitments to the common good were neglected, with negative consequences such as the deterioration of public safety and public health. The new sociohistorical context, as we see it, calls for greater dedication to the common good and less expansive privileging to the individual rights.”

Of course, everybody has a different reading on the “sociohistorical context,” and many might say it’s not a “new” context at all, but just the same old tug-of-war between true blue defenders of civil liberties and those who would attempt to limit those precious freedoms under the usual authoritarian pretexts such as the need for “law and order,” a “return to family values,” the “war on terror,” and so forth. Hence, the never-ending stalemate between “libertarians” and “communitarians” (or whatever labels you wish to assign to the polar camps in this culture war).

Lest you think that Etzioni is a far-right-wing absolutist, I urge you to read the book and see how well he balances and nuances his policy analysis and recommendations in his treatment of various privacy controversies. “The Limits of Privacy” offers a practical, sensible, context-sensitive mechanism for identifying necessary privacy limits, consisting of the following criteria (pp. 12-13):

  • FIRST CRITERION (applies only where a threat to society crosses a threshold identified in the criterion): ‘[T]ake steps to limit privacy only if [society] faces a well-documented and macroscopic threat to the common good, not merely a hypothetical danger.”
  • SECOND CRITERION (applies only if the threat specified by the first criterion is identified): “[C]ounter [that threat to society] without first resorting to measures that might restrict privacy.”
  • THIRD CRITERION (applies only if the non-privacy-diminishing measures specified by the second criterion cannot be identified): “Make [privacy-diminishing measures] as minimally intrusive as possible.”
  • FOURTH CRITERION (applies only if the privacy-diminishing measures specified by the third criterion are being evaluated for possible implementation): “[M]easures that treat undesirable side effects of needed privacy-diminishing measures are to be preferred over those that ignore these effects.”

More than just lay out these criteria, Etzioni demonstrates in privacy-relevant case after case how they can be used to clarify the pros and cons of various policy alternatives. Essentially, he’s doing an economics-like trade-off analysis of privacy vs. other important “goods,” implicitly recognizing (some of the forthcoming air quotes inserted by yours truly) that each privacy-protection measure may have a countervailing “opportunity cost” in forgone “common goods,” and may introduce “externalities” that nullify its advantages in whole or part. This approach reflects the fact that privacy protection is part of a never-ending balancing exercise that must consider larger cultural, economic, and geopolitical issues.

Nevertheless, I’m still a bit troubled by the slipperiness of Etzioni’s overarching “sociohistorical context” framework for identifying the proper balancing point for privacy rights. From what I can see, it could be used to justify a radical rewrite of privacy laws/regs toward either a fascistic or anarchistic extreme, on the grounds such a sudden, disruptive measure is necessary to rebalance the sociohistorical equation. Per the Conclusion on p. 215:

  • Etzioni: “Above all, a communitarian approach to privacy avoids the failings of static conceptions by taking into account sociohistorical changes. For example, it recognizes that [if] more privacy is granted from informal social controls in a given period, the more state controls will be necessary in following years to sustain the same level of social order.”

Etzioni follows this statement with an assurance that this approach is necessary for society to avoid either of the ideological extremes, where privacy is concerned. However, his closing statement (to the entire book) seems prone to misinterpretation, stressing as it does the need for “endeavors to ensure that society’s elementary needs for public health and public safety are not neglected.” Many dictators reinforce the legitimacy of their regimes by citing the need to defend the public’s safety and health (physical, economic, moral) from enemies, foreign and domestic—hence, the “law and order” and “spiritual cleansing” justifications for tyranny.

So, careful there, Amitai. Words are swords. Rhetorical edges can double back on those who wield them. Irony, red as passionate prose, sharp as stainless steel.