Three Principles of Privacy

Some years back, I would occasionally attend the meeting of the cypherpunks in Silicon Valley. Privacy was their main concern, and encryption, their main hope for maintaining privacy. I came away from those meetings with two principles that have stuck with me:

  1. Privacy is the power to reveal yourself selectively to the world.”

  2. “Encryption is fundamentally a matter of economics: how much are you willing to pay to get my information, and how much am I willing to pay to keep you from getting it?”

In a world of digital information storage, it seems to me, #2 will always and inevitably trump #1. So if anyone’s list of library check-outs, phone calls, emails, etc.  is stored somewhere electronically, they can be obtained. And the more prominent the person, the more likely (under #2) they will be hacked out.

I would add a third principle to the two excellent cypherpunk definitions and descriptions:

3) For some people, breaking into guarded places can be challenging and fun.

Just breaking into a server and looking around may do no apparent harm in and of itself. But there is always the temptation to brag about the achievement, and, worse, to create mischief while snooping around. Hacking can give the hacker a sense of pride in accomplishment, augment his (it’s usually a male) sense of self-worth, and generate the kind of enjoyment in mischief that some people (and maybe more than just “some”) never outgrow. It’s the pleasure of knocking down a delicate house of cards, or kicking down a termite mound. Bill Watterson’s Calvin expresses this transgressively exciting impulse in many of the Calvin and Hobbes panels.

So to return to the principles of privacy. Here is a scenario for #3:

Scene: an Aspiring Scholar (A.S.) — a graduate student or an untenured assistant professor in an English department — meets up with a buddy at a local brewpub.

Buddy: Whazzup?

A.S.: I’m working on a paper about the literary influences on David Foster Wallace. Everything’s been said about his personal library and his published recommendations.

Buddy: What about the books he checked out of various libraries?

A.S.:  Can’t be done. Those files are private and inaccessible, like medical records.

Buddy: Got ten bucks for a six-pack? I know a guy…