On Privacy

GLENN BECK RANTED on Monday as to how stupid and despicable it is for a newspaper to publish the addresses of the owners of registered guns. He (and others) are acting as though the problem is the newspaper. I have a different take. (Quelle surprise.)

An aside, though. I recall a freedom-of-the-press work of agitprop starring Sally Field and Paul Newman called Absence of Malice. The central contention that, in order for journalism that ruins people’s lives to be reprehensible, the journalist in question must have a malicious intent. Around here, we don’t accept statements of motive as dispositive. Rather, we judge actions by results. If the publication of a detail eventuates in harm to the subject of a story or a mention, the writer is responsible — by the same principle as felony murder.

Except there’s been no crime. No — whatcha callit — predicate.

Really? Hmm. Maybe we need to address that. In legislation strengthening Fourth Amendment protections.

The problem is not the newspaper publishing information which is a matter of public record. It is, rather, that the government has and continues to improperly put into the public record information which is none of its business.

Yes, it’s a privacy issue, but the enemy is the state, not the press. The newspaper should not be able to print the information from this source because the source shouldn’t exist.

I keep predicting — partially in hopes of helping to bring about — a backlash against the constant insults to liberty and privacy. I believe that everyone misses the key point. YOU should own the information about you. What it is is nobody’s business.

My mother is a writer. (Grandmother, too. Runs in the family.) She used to write at a table in the dining room. Not the dining room table, but her own … well, call it a desk. She would, as a matter of habit, leave her current manuscript page in the typewriter. We were forbidden to read it. Absolutely.
As a matter of privacy. (Also as a legal matter. She retained and retains copyright. As a part of that is that, if she doesn’t give you permission to read an unpublished work, you are committing a Federal crime. Good luck winning in court, but the reality is there — it’s illegal to read a work without permission. The possession of a licensed copy constitutes permission. In the absence of a licensed copy, reading an unpubbed work without permission is a copyright violation. The law may not read exactly like that, but those are the basic facts.)

Anyway, I never did. It was quite possible I could have without anyone’s being the wiser. There were long stretches of time when the typewriter was unattended and the page in it easily visible to the casual passerby. But a morally strait person, respecting the privacy rights of the author would not read without permission. It’s a lesson, really, in libertarianism. The essential core principle of the belief system is respect for individual autonomy — insisting on it for yourself, but also granting it to others.

I believe that this principle should be in play in the general realm of personal privacy. It doesn’t matter if you give your personal information to a business for purposes of transacting business. That is YOUR information, and the business assumes a fiduciary responsibility to keep it private.

This principle already hold sway with regard to financial information. A responsible business would no more pass along your account information to a third party (without authorization) than they would their own. Why should your address or phone number be a more legitimate target? It’s a matter of public record? Where the hell does it say that’s material? Your house number is on your front porch. Does that make it proper to print your address in the paper? Of course not. It makes you a target — no matter for whom or under what threat, it does so, and to bring that about is reprehensible. Absence of malice or not.

Now, there are laws. Banking regulations pretend to provide a framework of best practices and set limits on what information may and may not be divulged by banks to third parties. But, in essence, what has happened is that the legislature — in this case, Congress — has waived your right to privacy, without regard to your desires, or even consulting you. And it has done so in clear violation of the natural right to privacy and of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

Hey! Hold on a minute, Alger! (She said, playing the good little shill once again…) The Bill of Rights …

Is a list of limits on government — and specifically on the Federal government? Is that what you mean to say? Really?

Erm… Yes?

Well, you’re wrong. Only the First Amendment refers to an actor — Congress. The rest are absolute proscriptions — “…the right of the People…” “… shall not be infringed…” — with no reference to an actor, and no limits. The rights are seen and written of as natural, unlimited, and inherent to the individual. No actor — public or private, or at any level of government — may trammel them.

And, if you think of it, at the time the Constitution was written, there were a good many fewer agents of the state than there are today. Professional police departments, for one example, would not become common for another fifty years. I can see myriad scenarios in which a private citizen might violate one of the rights and be sanctioned for it.

But one thing is crystal clear, and that is that what we refer as a right to privacy — “… to be secure in their persons, papers, and effects…” — is enshrined and protected in the Constitution and that it should be as protected as perfect and absolute.

And that means to me that, even if you are on a public street, you have a default presumption of a right to privacy in your person, and no one may, for example, take your picture without your permission. Private entities may not use a photograph of you — even if you appear in it only by accident and are not even the subject of the photograph — without your permission in writing. Why, then, does the state — surely more straitly restricted than private entities — have the authority to observe you willy nilly via surveillance cameras? Should not there be a requirement that first a judge must rule on probable cause and issue a warrant — for every person appearing on a street in view of a surveillance camera?

And but me no buts about convenience. Liberty shall not give way to convenience, else all is lost. Also, arguments to the so-called Greater Good are bootless, for in violating the rights of a single individual for said “greater” good, you are committing the greater evil of vitiating the rights of all.

Think about it. Refine it. Pass it on.

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