Privacy wingnuts

I’ve been looking for a classic example of so-called, self-appointed “privacy advocates” gathered by the press going off the deep-end (if you have any, please send them to me).

And then this dropped in my lap: a reputed outcry by these putative privacy advocates against Wal-Mart putting RFID tags on pants.

What could possibly violate our privacy with tracking pants in a store to make sure there aren’t too many extra-large sizes on the shelves? (That was my experience with Wal-Mart when I tried to buy sweats before my surgery; I wish they’d restocked the mediums.)

Well, say the advocates the Journal found: “While the tags can be removed from clothing and packages, they can’t be turned off, and they are trackable. Some privacy advocates hypothesize that unscrupulous marketers or criminals will be able to drive by consumers’ homes and scan their garbage to discover what they have recently bought.”

Yeah, and then what? So they find out that I bought 33/34 jeans. And with that precious personal data they will do what? Blackmail me because I’m no longer the svelte 32 I once was? Sell me illegal diet aids? Sell me ice cream? Target advertising for medium jockeys to me? Subject me to public ridicule as a pencil-necked geek?

Don’t the reporter and editor at the Journal stand back and laugh at the absurdity of this worry? Don’t they ask the next, obvious question: “Yeah, and…?” Isn’t that their job?

Ah, but they report more and find further cause for worry:

“Some privacy advocates contend that retailers could theoretically scan people with such [encoded] licenses as they make purchases, combine the info with their credit card data, and then know the person’s identity the next time they stepped into the store.”

And that would be worth the trouble and risk for the store how? That would give them more data than they already have from credit cards and other means?

So often, articles calling on “privacy advocates” leave them unnamed — anonymous and private, you understand. The Journal digs up one Katherine Albrecht, “founder of a group called Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering and author of a book called ‘Spychips‘ that argues against RFID technology.” Group? Just how many people go to her meetings? And does the book come with tin-foil underwear? The “group” was founded to oppose grocery-store loyalty cards. Yes, we see the damage they have done to countless lives.

Her own site says that she has “earned her accolades from Advertising Age and Business Week and caused pundits to label her a PR genius.” I dare say. She next got the Journal to swallow her silliness.

Listen, I’m all for privacy. I’m working hard to define it in my book on publicness. I will vigorously defend the need and right to control one’s information. There are plenty of serious and difficult issues to discuss. But this kind of idiocy does not serve the cause. It only finds a spy under every leisure suit. In the long run, it turns the cause of privacy into an object of ridicule. And that’s wrong.

But this is often the case with technology and privacy. Technology spawns fears — and worries these advocates — because it introduces change and it’s really change that they fear. Here’s a tidbit from my manuscript illustrating the point:

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Alan F. Westin, in his influential 1967 book Privacy and Freedom … found many devices to fear: LSD “may greatly affect the individual’s daily personal balance between what he keeps private about himself and what he discloses to those around him” and could again be used for government surveillance. Westin worried about radio pills, miniature transmitters, and even about fluorescent powders and dyes—not to mention radioactive substances—that could be applied to “hands, shoes, clothing, hair, umbrella, and the like, or can be added to such items as soap, after-shave lotion, and hair tonic” to track the unsuspecting person.

Secret, miniature cameras, infrared film, microminiature microphones the size of match-heads, battery-operated tape-recorders, hidden “television-eye” monitoring, telephone tapping, “truth measurement” by polygraph tests, personality testing, brain-wave analysis, dossiers of personal data, and the means to steam open envelopes and measure TV audiences—these all concerned him. He speculated about “invisible magnetic-ink tattoos [that] might be applied (for example, to babies at birth)” and transmitters that could be implanted and “wireless, battery-operated television ‘eyes’ the size of buttons,” not to mention U-2 spy cameras from above as well as the ability to read brain signals.

Westin warned of the dangers of computers. In 1966, he wrote, there were 30,000 computers used in the U.S., 2,600 of them in the federal government. What happens, he asked, when we come to the day when “computers in the field of health will eventually establish total medical profiles on everyone in the country ‘from the hour of birth’ and updated through life. Each record will be almost instantly accessible to medical personnel.” Oh, if only.

Westin listed his fears of technology’s impact on privacy 45 years before you read this. How many of his dreads came to life? Few if any, I’d say. That is not to mock him nor even to diminish his warnings, only to put the fears technology fosters into context as we grapple with the concerns attached to our more-modern sciences.

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LATER: I looked at all the coverage I could find on Google News and I found but one piece that, like me, dared to question the “Cassandras of the privacy movement.” CNBC’s Dennis Kneale wrote:

One day RFID tags will permeate the U.S. and global economies, cutting costs for manufacturers and retailers and letting them better respond to consumer tastes. A whole new stock-sector boom could loom as well, in companies that cash in on this inevitable tech trend.

That is, unless the Privacy Police gets in the way. . . .

Um, so what is it I should fear that Wal-Mart will do with this new data horde showing that I just bought a pair of boxers? (Alright let’s stipulate: We’d be less keen on Wal-Mart’s knowing we just bought Spanx.)

The privacy guys always do this—raise well-intended but fear-provoking possibilities at the advent of most any new, promising technology. It is part of what the 1990s Internet sage, Nicholas Negroponte, called the “demonization of bits.” If a salesperson follows us around a store watching our purchases, fine; but use technology to do it and suddenly it’s Orwellian.

Playing the privacy card seems a bit antiquated in this exhibitionistic era of gleefully revealing your inner-most foibles and fetishes to potentially millions of other equally indiscreet folks on Facebook.

: LATER: RFID Journal blasts “privacy nonsense” around chips.

: UPDATE: The WSJ’s RFID expert believes that the chips are a fulfillment of an end-time biblical prophesy. Did I say wingnuts?