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Book Review: The End of Privacy

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The End of Privacy: Personal Rights in the Surveillance Society
by Charles J. Sykes (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999); 282 pages; $24.95.

At Menwith Hill in the North York moors of Great Britain, there is a spy center employing 1,400 U.S. National Security Agency personnel and 350 members of the British Defense Ministry. They collect email, telephone, fax, cellular, and fiber-optic communications intercepted from around the world, using a network of ships, satellites, and land-based facilities situated around the globe and operating 24 hours a day. All the intercepts are funneled on to Fort Meade, Maryland, where they are studied and interpreted for “suspicious” content, including any use of the word “freedom.” Then the intercepts are passed on to any of the four primary participating governments — the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand — and any other interested nation. This worldwide, U.S. government-dominated surveillance system is called “Echelon.”

As frightening as this may sound, it is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Big Brother is doing in watching us. The programs and plans of government and other organizations to know us and control us are carefully, chillingly, and lucidly documented and analyzed in Charles Sykes’s new book, The End of Privacy: Personal Rights in the Surveillance Society. In his earlier book, A Nation of Victims, (see the review in Freedom Daily, February 1993), Mr. Sykes detailed how, under socialist-style mythologies and paternalist government policies, American society threatened to become a country in which a growing number of people were turning their back on self-control, self-responsibility, and any mutual respect for others’ individual rights.

Now Sykes trains his sights on the threatened loss of any intimate and private arena free from prying eyes and ears. He points out just how important a sense and domain of privacy really are. Each of us in fact needs an area of personal life in which we can be ourselves in thoughts, deeds, and intimate association with others with whom we choose to “get close.” Without privacy there is no meaning or possibility for shame or modesty, being one’s self, and letting it all out, or defining those moments and relationships we consider special from those that are in the public domains of our lives. Sykes reminds us that the elimination of privacy has been central to the agendas of the totalitarian states of the 20th century. The individual was to have no place to hide from the benevolent observation and supervision of the state.

While the new electronic and computer era into which we have only just entered offers unimaginable vistas for improving and enhancing the quality and variety of human life, at the present time their misuse and abuse are a danger far more serious than many people yet understand, Sykes argues. The heart of the danger comes from two interrelated sources: first, the failure to either clearly establish in law that many types of information supplied by or collected about a person should be considered as his private property, or establish enforcement procedures to ensure that there is no access, use, or transference of these private bits of information without the subject’s consent and approval; and, second, the attempt by various branches of federal and state government to have access to and use of all electronic and computerized information about every aspect of any person’s professional and personal life.

Wherever we go and whatever we do, Sykes warns and emphasizes, we almost always leave a computerized trace. We use a credit card or pay by check anytime we shop, eat out, or go out for an evening of entertainment. We pay cash for some household, recreational, or professional item, but then we fill out and mail off the warranty card to the manufacturer. We take out a loan, buy a car, have a medical checkup, and fill a prescription. We purchase something off the Internet or merely log on to some website.

We send and receive emails, make calls with a cordless phone, or fax a memo. Copies of every one of these and many others are then stored in a computer, and often sent on to other computer facilities for centralized collation of the bits of data collected about each of us into a few general and easily accessible locations. Our life histories, our triumphs and tragedies, our most personal and private problems, interactions, embarrassments, and fears are open to investigation, intrusion, and misuse.

It’s bad enough, Sykes insists, that without clear individual property rights, too much of the information about ourselves is available and used by companies, corporations, and organizations in the private sector. But however undesirable and harmful private sector use of personal information might be, it pales into insignificance in comparison with government’s groping hand. Indeed, the primary danger from private-sector collection and storage of information about our individual private lives is that government has easy access to it all, either by law or by indirect intimidation of those organizations possessing computerized data banks.

Central to the government’s attack on our privacy is the persistent attempt to limit the development and use of encryption methods to secure both commercial and private communications over the Interment. Whether it be the Reagan, Bush, or Clinton administration, the overriding principle has been the need for the U.S. government to have a special “key” to enter and read any code used or to limit the development of any codes that U.S. security agencies would not be able to “break” within a short period of time.

Of course, the government rationalizes its need for all this information on us: we might be terrorists, or drug dealers, or tax evaders. And just because of the possibility any one of us might fall into these categories, the government needs the right to know everything and anything about each and every one of us.

Sykes also points out that the enemies of privacy and individual private property in personal information come from both the political left and the political right. Conservatives want to restrict privacy because we might be reading, saying, watching, or participating in something morally wrong and therefore require government regulation. Feminists want to restrict privacy because some man might be harassing or discriminating against some woman somewhere over something at some time.

Whether or not private data banks and the information collected and used in them can be considered a serious problem in a limited government, free-market society, the fact remains that their existence and availability in a political environment of increasingly unrestrained and intrusive government requires some form of legally recognized and enforced rights to individual privacy. Otherwise we face the real possibility of the Big Brother state with unlimited knowledge about all of us at the fingertips of the political regulators, social engineers, and social “do-gooders.” And that is a danger we now all face.

 

 

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).