Libertarians and Privacy

by Mike Kimel

Libertarians and Privacy

Over at EconLog, David Henderson berates a fellow libertarian on the difference between Facebook at the Census.

But let’s grant, for the sake of this discussion, that FB is quite contemptuous of privacy and that the Census Bureau is less so. Here’s the difference. Every single person who signs up with Facebook does so voluntarily. If FB had committed to guarding your privacy, then it would be breeching a contract by doing so. But I’ve never seen FB make that commitment. The U.S. Census Bureau, by contrast, uses the threat of force to get its information. That’s a pretty big difference. It’s not one that I would expect, say, the New York Times, to point out. But it is a distinction that I would have expected from someone who calls himself a bleeding heart libertarian.

A lot of libertarians seem to think there’s a distinction between when the government engages in an activity and when a private sector entity engages in the same activity. But a thought experiment is in order. Consider… it isn’t technologically infeasible for me, much less an organization with a lot more resources than I have, to do any of the following things from public property – say, across the street from David Henderson’s home:

1. Monitor every conversation that occurs in a home and parse each of those conversations for information
2. Monitor comings and goings into and out of a home
3. Monitor internet usage, and potentially, phone calls made and received in the home
4. Monitor where each individual is in the home at any given moment and to some extent, what that individual is doing.
5. Monitor precisely how much electricity is going into the home (and no, this does not require access to or a view of the meter or any contact in the electric company).
6. Monitor where every individual who lives in the home goes when they are not in the home

Essentially, all it takes to do all of these things is time, a bit of determination, and maybe $5,000 in equipment. I don’t even think any of these these activities is illegal if done by a private party, except to some extent, number 3, and, in some states, number 1 if the monitor makes a recording of the conversations. (And realistically, guys like David Henderson don’t exactly like the government limiting what private citizens can and cannot do, do they?) Number 4 depends in part on weather conditions.

Additionally, the costs of monitoring is just coming down. It won’t be long before one could surreptitiously keep track of a lot of aspects of a person’s health remotely, and without their consent.

Now, an organization doing all of the above does not require the consent or even the knowledge of the monitored to do the monitoring, unless one assumes that failure to deploy expensive countermeasures is equivalent to consent. Note that for the monitoring to occur, there is no need whatsoever for the monitored party to have any relationship at all with the monitor, and threats of violence are completely unnecessary.

The only thing going on is the collection of information which Mr. Henderson feels would have been a bad thing it been done by the government. It will be interesting to see where libertarians of Mr. Henderson’s ilk go in the coming years. Will they fall on the side of “a private party’s information is private unless he/she has chosen to share that information with third parties, whether explicitly or implicitly through transactions” or will they laud the collection of said information as a triumph of the free market? My guess is the latter, simply because the former would require government intervention, and the government is always evil as far as some folks are concerned.

Meanwhile, collectively, the rest of us will try to steer a sensible middle ground – determining what is permissible and what is “too far” and setting limits through legislation.