Dawson's TBTF question

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A question found at Keith Dawson's TBTF: Do citizens have the right to communicate privately? - or - Does the government have the right to know the content of any communication?

Try to answer in 50 words or less.

-- Lyn (millett@io.com), December 02, 1999


Yes. No.

[You didn't _ask_ for justification. 8^)= ]


-- John Anderson (jacobs@genehack.org), December 02, 1999.

To say that governments have "rights" is the worst kind of anthropomorphization. Governments have no rights. They may have privileges delegated them by the people, but that's it. I don't believe individuals have rights of any sort. Rights-talk is sometimes useful but, in a world without ultimate authority, always false-to- fact.

-- Mike Gunderloy (MikeG1@mcwtech.com), December 02, 1999.

[Sorry if I'm going this wrong, but I can't determine how to reply to a message, just the original question. LART as required. I also mailed this direct to Mike, just to try to keep the conversation lively.]

Mike --

I'm confused over the semantics[1] here -- I understand the point about the rights of governments, but I'm confused when you say individuals have no rights. I'd appreciate it if you'd expand upon that a bit, so I can figure out if we're disagreeing about this or not. 8^)=


[1] That's not meant in the fuzzy headed way it's usually used, either. "Every time I hear someone use the phrase 'merely semantics', I bite my tongue and remind myself that I too am greatly ignorant about some things." (Bonus points for spotting the probably mangled reference.)

-- John S Jacobs Anderson (jacobs@genehack.org), December 03, 1999.

Both parties have a right to try. The citizens should have the right to employ whatever forms of encrytion/covertness they deem necessary. The government should (continue to) have the right to seek warrants to attempt to intercept communications in whatever form they occur and try to decifer them.

-- Jim Ezick (ezick@cs.cornell.edu), December 03, 1999.

My own answers are Yes and No, but I find it interesting that we're shifting from a world in which typical communication is unobservable without a great deal of work and planning (you and I alone in a room) to a state where a typical conversation is wide open to any who has the tools to listen (you and I sending unencrypted e-mail or even just talking on the phone).

We didn't have to be that careful about rules before the 20th century; conversations were private by default.

Oops, thats over 50 wo

-- Steve Bogart (bogart@nowthis.com), December 03, 1999.

Having kept my original answer at exactly 50 words, I suppose I need to throw in a few more of elaboration. Lyn, don't count these . As far as lack of belief in individual rights, it's a philosophical point, but one which I honestly think is correct. I don't think the whole concept of "rights" actually refers to anything in the same way that the concept of "chair" does, or even "electron". As usually understood, a right is an absolute guarantee...and, being both anarchist and sort of atheist (religious views are more complex than that, but that will do for the current discussion) I don't believe in any absolute guarantors. QED. At best, "rights" are things that people have more or less agreed to pretend a belief in because they like the results that this pretense gives in their own lives. But at the bottom level, I don't believe there is such a thing as a right in the universe. Much of modern political discourse, it seems to me, is based on a complex structure of fictions invented by upper class European dilettantes in post-medieval times. In a way, it reminds me of the investigations of the properties of the luminiferous ether that went on before that particular set of ideas toppled.

PS - No need to worry about email, John...I'll check back here from time to time.

-- Mike Gunderloy (MikeG1@mcwtech.com), December 03, 1999.

Hey, if a good discussion develops.. ignore the 50-word constraint (I was just going with Dawson's original question.) Also, I've set this up such that it's a Q&A forum as opposed to a threaded forum. Beth at xeney.com has done this, and I like the way it works. I may experiment with a threaded forum at some point (as I said on Medley, I'm doing this to decide whether to use greenspun's stuff for a professional site I'm working on...)

You can choose to receive all responses by email after you submit a message, I believe; this way, you'd see new responses as soon as they show up.

-- Lyn (millett@io.com), December 03, 1999.

Of course, Mike's response begs the question: What do we actually mean when we say 'X has a right to Y.' ?

Here are some possibilities tossed out before I head off for lunch: X should not be constrained by coercive forces to 'not Y'. ??

X can expect to be able to Y without undue difficulty or restraint by the government or society ??

I don't know.. I think people have the right to smoke, but I've got no problem with some social stigma being attached.

Difficult philosophical questions. However, I firmly believe that I have 'the right' --- whatever that means --- to communicate in any way I please, whether it's by using encryption, inventing a language, or by Morse code. The U.S. government has got some really screwy notions about encryption. It really pisses me off.

-- Lyn (millett@io.com), December 03, 1999.

Mike, how about a right as something an individual is entitled to use force to protect? As such they have to be things that individuals have outside of any culture or society, and are something that every individual can have within the society.

Thus food and shelter can't be rights, but speech and privacy can be.

As for the rights of "government", government is just a collection of people, it must have no rights that those people don't.

-- Dan Lyke (danlyke@flutterby.com), December 11, 1999.

Hmm, complex question made more complex in the answering of it. First I'll address the concept of "rights". There's a difference between rights and liberties. Liberties are things that we've decided the government should be restricted from taking away from us. Therefore we set up a constitution, state laws and federal regulations designed to place limits on the power of the government to interfere in various aspects of our lives. For instance, freedom of religion is by definition a liberty - the government is prevented from forcing us to practice a particular religion. It's an issue of the essential American doctrine of freedom. Rights, on the other hand, are aspects of life that we demand the government to take action to ensure to us. Rights usually have to do with the doctrine of equality rather than freedom. Affirmative action, for example, is a part of civil rights legislation - we demand that the government protect equality of opportunity by taking direct action to ensure that minorities have an essentially equal chance at getting into a college by lowering or adjusting admissions standards to balance out a minority candidate's historical lack of opportunity. When a right is ensured, a liberty is taken away. Now, don't get angry, that's not a bad thing. a minority's right to equal opportunity takes away the people's liberty to discriminate against minorities. Your right to a fair trial eliminates your police force's liberty to throw you in a pit and leave you there. OK. So, do we peasants have a right to privacy in America? Yup, we sure do. Even though it's become difficult and even unfashionable to keep your affairs private, it is a right that we have. I personally find it disturbing that a lot of people think they have a "right to know". For instance, Fox has run several iterations of a TV program wherein employees are caught on camera doing various evil or embarrassing things, like making xeroxes of their private parts. What bothered me about the program was that nobody was questioning the concept that the employers had every right to put cameras up in the workplace without telling the employees. The focus was "oh my god, how can those people do those disgusting things? I knew it! All chefs are sick little monkeys..." I don't know what the laws are about hidden cameras, but somebody should be asking why they are being used. Here's another example: I used to work at the local police station as a records clerk. I had the same argument every day with some person who would come in and ask for a copy of someone else's arrest record before the arrestee had actually been convicted of the crime. It is specifically illegal to do that (NYS CPL 620)because the defendant might be acquitted, in which case the arrest report vanishes from his or her record and all copies have to be recalled. Oh, but how they whine about this! Reporters for the local newspaper are the worst. "Public Information"! "We have a Right to Know"! Under the Freedom of Information law, you have a right to petition the court for certain records, not to have 'em handed to you automatically. So anyway, you have a right to privacy, which the government is required to enforce. And yes, private communication is also your right. "The government" as an entity can't technically have rights, it has powers instead. And it has whatever power we give it. There's a difference between what the government is capable of doing, and what it is permitted to do. Somebody in the NSA might have the capability of listening to every coversation you ever had via a secret implant in your nose, but if they try to use the recorded conversations against you in a court of law, the NSA is going to have a hell of a lot of explaining to do. As it stands now, the (American) government does not have the legislative power to know the content of every communication, and this is the way it should be. It's going to stay that way until the American people decide to change it. I sure hope we don't.

-- Jennifer Bishop (jmb19@cornell.edu), December 13, 1999.

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