Privacy Law

Privacy's benefits are exaggerated, Posner says in op-ed

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Privacy is really about concealing aspects of yourself from others, according to federal appeals judge Richard Posner.

We want to hide our arrest records, medical histories and peccadilloes, Posner writes in a New York Daily News op-ed. “We want to present sanitized versions of ourselves to the world. We market ourselves the way sellers of consumer products market their wares—highlighting the good, hiding the bad.”

Not all concealment is bad, says Posner, a judge on the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A rich person may want to conceal wealth to discourage thieves, or a person who is related to a notorious criminal may hide the link to avoid complicating social and business relations. “Still, a good deal of privacy just facilitates the personal counterpart of the false advertising of goods and services, and by doing so, reduces the well-being of society as a whole,” Posner says.

Though he doesn’t advocate the repeal of privacy laws, Posner says the social benefits aren’t as pronounced as some civil libertarians would contend. And a lack of privacy has some very real benefits when it takes the form of surveillance cameras, Posner says.

Such cameras played a crucial role in apprehension of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, Posner says. “How much more havoc might the two Boston Marathon bombers have wreaked had they remained unidentified for weeks?” he wonders.

Government surveillance cameras are installed mainly in public areas, where privacy is already limited, Posner says. Though the cameras create a record, unlike ordinary eavesdropping, “is this enough of a difference to offset the security benefits of surveillance?” Posner asks. “I think not.” Such cameras increase the likelihood that terrorists or criminals will be caught, and they may increase deterrence, Posner says.

Posner addresses another privacy intrusion and its potential benefits at the conclusion of his article. He notes that civil liberties groups worry about government surveillance of people’s computer files and electronic stored data. “But I don’t think they appreciate that this is a two-way street,” Posner says. “Surveillance technology used by our government is also used by our enemies. We must keep up; we cannot resign from the technological revolution.”

Hat tip to How Appealing.

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