Are We Talking about Privacy or Liberty?

Originally published at:

It seems that both tech giants and government agencies want to know everything about us. But is “privacy” what we’re really looking for, or something more along the lines of the right to be left alone?

Thanks, Adam. This article put into words what I was unable in my mind. It reminded me as immigrants came to North America via ships into New York. They passed Staten Island and viewed the Statue of Liberty, not the Statue of Privacy.

Without a system of basic inherent rights of and to privacy we can have no realistic expectation of liberty. I see my privacy diminishing each year especially in two areas in my native country of the USA: all internet activity including social media and commerce and in every aspect of health care. We’ve long ago lost most liberties in the realm of personal finance. We could omit the word “personal” and simply refer to it as “finance.”

Thanks for continuing to keep TidBITS viable and relevant.


I read this piece back in June when it was published. Menand makes some
good points, but I think that dismissing the difference between past and
present as merely matters of scale and/or efficiency is sidestepping the
nature of the problem. It’s precisely because technology has made it
efficient to collect and use information on such a massive scale that
the questions of who has what data, how they obtained it, and how they
are using it require revisiting and may demand different answers from in
the past.

I think both ‘privacy’ and ‘liberty’ may be the wrong terms for what
people are really looking for here. I think a better term would be
‘authority’ or ‘control’. We want to have the ability to decide how our
information is collected, distributed, and used. That includes the
decision to keep some information private, the freedom to be left alone,
and most other aspects of this debate.

Mark D. McKean

That’s an interesting take, Mark. One of my long-held beliefs about personal information is that it is and should be valued as intellectual property. You should own—and thus control—information about you. That might involve trading it for free service, but that should be your choice, and ideally, you shouldn’t be prevented from paying real money instead.

Amazon encapsulates this in some ways with some of their Kindle tablets, which are cheaper if you’re willing to be shown ads. What’s most important there is that you have the choice of paying more or viewing ads, something you don’t get with Facebook, for instance. There was a recent survey that showed that only 23% of Americans would pay for Facebook without ads, but still, that’s nearly a quarter of the population.

I like your thoughts on “authority” or “control” but they are somewhat embodied in “privacy.” I cannot speak for other countries, but in the United States of America the words “privacy” and “liberty” are used with precision from a constitutional point of view.

I appreciate your point of view. Privacy is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves, or information about themselves, and thereby express themselves selectively. This is completely consistent with what you describe in your second paragraph. I would very much like the authority to control information shared about me. This is the exercise of privacy.

“Liberty” entails the responsible use of freedom under the rule of law without depriving anyone else of their freedom.

While this is true, I wasn’t talking about the formal usage. I was
talking about the general public discourse, which is what the article in
question appeared to be addressing with the relevant comment. Most
people would need to have it explained that “privacy”, in a legal or
constitutional sense, implies control over personal information even
when that information is not strictly “private”. Explicitly stating that
control over all personal information is what is being discussed helps
put people on the same page.

The greatest difficulty in public debates about these sorts of things is
that you have experts using terms which within the formal scope of the
field have precise definitions but cover a wider range of vaguer
meanings to the general public. Not recognizing this, and expecting the
general public to recognize and know that these terms have precise
meaning in the relevant field, is a recipe for having your message
misunderstood and/or misrepresented, either inadvertently or
intentionally. (The most well-known example of this regards the
scientific use of the term “theory”.) It’s generally best to assume
that, absent specific explanation, non-experts will assume the general
vernacular usage rather than the formal usage, and so either provide
additional explanation or use terms that have a more targeted common
meaning when communicating with those outside the field.

Mark D. McKean

This is good. I was just thinking about this as I connected my new tv box to youtube; you can’t connect anything to anything now without having to sign off the rights to the fokking web sites to collect data about your browsing and your comments and your shopping, it makes me wanna puke.
And it’s probably OK, but you just can’t know. People’s Google search histories have turned up in court cases and whatnot… does not track your search history. But sadly, and oddly, the interface is simply not as good as Google! It does not mix results on the first page, and with video searches it only shows Youtube results, which is bizarre.

David Pogue has a very relaxed view on all this, he just can’t see the problem. But it is spooky that there is tonnes of information about you floating around out there, and you have no idea what or where. And the world does not lack for people or agencies who may want to hurt you, for example Alex Jones’ fanatical followers who harrass the shooting survivors.

This is interesting:

I realize it has a cost associated, but DEVONagent Pro is really sweet for deep, relevant searches. II don’t get paid for saying this.). I’m still somewhat of a newbie using it but am amazed at the flexibility and precision one can define the searches.

I agree with you about the utility of DEVONagent Pro and I would not want to use a computer without its big brother DEVONthink. Even so, I only fire-up DEVONagent when I have some seriously deep-diving Internet searching to do or I want to set-up a scheduled automated search.

I would love to love DuckDuckGo but I understand where Eolake is coming from. . . I tried using Duck when it first came out and its results just don’t cut the mustard for me.

Google remains the one-stop search engine king but you don’t need to give up your privacy to use it. Startpage returns Google results after it strips out your identifying data and submits your search to Google. (Startpage pays Google for access which explains why they are able to get away with it. . .)

The Startpage Private Search 2.1 app (available via Safari Extensions) makes it the default search engine in Safari. Startpage can also be made the default in Firefox.

I also have Startpage set as the default search engine used by DEVONagent Express, which is easily accessible via its icon in the Finder Menu Bar.

Thanks for sharing. I did not know about Startpage. I’ll give it a go and see how it works.