Privacy in the Past, Present, and Future

Our own actions – individual and collective – set the upper limit of our privacy rights. We will never have more privacy rights than we care to have, although we often have fewer. One stark illustration of this idea comes in Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Dead Past,” in which a group of scientists build and, despite the government’s best efforts, thoughtlessly disseminate the instructions for building a “chronoscope” – a machine for viewing any events in the (recent) past. Their original purpose was historical research, but the chronoscope is not very useful for that; what it is very good for is snooping and voyeurism. The story ends with the government official who tried and failed to stop the protagonists wishing “[h]appy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone.”

The internet, especially Web 2.0, is (almost) as good as the chronoscope, argues Alex Kozinski, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in a short essay published in the Stanford Law Review Online. It also allows everyone to learn all about anyone, provided that the person – or indeed someone else – posted the information on the internet at some point. And the fact that people share their every thought and deed online shapes society’s expectations of privacy, which are the key to what constitutional protections we have in this area. Those parts of our lives which we do not expect to be private are not protected from observation at will by the government. And if we do not expect anything to be private, then nothing will be.

“Reasonable expectations of privacy” are also key to defining privacy rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court’s latest engagement with the question of just what expectations of privacy are reasonable, in R. v. Gomboc, 2010 SCC 55, [2010] 3 S.C.R. 211, produced something of a mess. The issue was whether the installation without a warrant of a device that measures the electricity consumption of a house breached the owner’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Four judges said no, because general information about electricity consumption does not reveal enough to make it private. Three said no because the law entitled to owner to ask the utility not to hand over such information to the police, and he had not exercised this right. Two said that the information was private. But what seems clear is that for Canadian law too, what we think about our privacy and what we do about it, individually and collectively, matters.

Are we then doomed, as Judge Kozinski suggests we might be? Perhaps not. With respect, his claims are a little too pessimistic. Judge Kozinski collects a great many frightening anecdotes about people’s willingness to wash their – and others’ – dirty laundry in public. But anecdotes seldom justify sweeping conclusions. And some studies at least seem to show that people do care about their privacy more than the pessimists assume,  if not always in ways or to an extent that would satisfy the pessimists. Old expectations of privacy might be fading, but new ones could emerge, along different lines. Judge Kozinski is right that the law cannot do much to protect people who do not care. But we must hope that he and his colleagues, as well as legislators on both sides of the 49th parallel, will be mindful of the possibility that changes in privacy expectations can go in both directions.

6 thoughts on “Privacy in the Past, Present, and Future

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