Monday, August 5, 2013

UPDATE: Daniel Zolnikov and Online Privacy

Is it time already for another warble about cybersecurity? Gentle Readers, the concept of online privacy is basically a legal fiction. It's similar to any sense of privacy you might enjoy at the beach...people shouldn't have legal rights to harass you, but you know they can see you, so you self-censor your behavior at the beach accordingly.

Fred Lucas reports on a Montana state representative, Daniel Zolnikov, who has been paraphrased as saying: "If you don't want the government to spy on you, move to Montana." (Since those are not Mr. Zolnikov's own words, I'm updating this post accordingly. I'm also inviting Mr. Zolnikov to contribute as many of his own words as he wants to share with this web site.)

But in practice...If you're walking on the beach, having a private conversation with a friend, and a stranger overhears you saying something like "killed him and hid his body in the sewer line," you know the person is likely to keep listening. If you're talking about a detective story you read, this doesn't bother you, much. This web site will assume that, if you had actually witnessed such a thing in real life, you'd be talking to the police, who would probably have advised you not to tell the story to other people.

Cyberspace is similar. I went to school with a geek who could probably find any piece of data that had been stored on a computer, at that time. He was gifted but he wasn't all that extraordinary: there were probably guys with similar talents at most colleges. Our federal government hired dozens of them. Other governments hired dozens of guys like them, in other countries. If information is in cyberspace, some of these guys already have it. If you insist on posting about murder victims buried in sewer lines, you're going to attract the cyberspace equivalent of strangers walking closely behind you on the beach. Mr. Zolnikov seems to have good intentions but no amount of good intentions is ever going to stop people listening to intriguing bits of conversations they overhear in public, and anything posted in cyberspace is, basically, a conversation conducted in public.

If your online communication consists of evidence about a crime, Mr. Zolnikov's efforts may require law enforcement agents to contact you in real life or gather additional evidence in real life before they can prosecute anybody...but that's all.

This web site recommends that when you do anything online, you visualize your favorite computer geeks sitting around the table beside you. Some of them work with our government; some with a random selection of other governments around the world. They are going to see what you post, sooner or later. You may succeed in protecting some degree of "online privacy" from your parents or the person sitting beside you at the computer center, but that's about as far as the concept of "online privacy" actually goes.