07.26.10

Thoughts on Information Legacy vs. Political Security

Posted in About Technology at 8:16 pm by Administrator

Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary that he attended Catholic Masses in Restoration England during the 1660s. He might have had an inkling that this information held some personal danger for him, after all he used a type of shorthand not only to increase the density of the data in his Journals but perhaps as a method to dissuade the casual reader of finding out damning facts. In fact, more than a decade later such a fact might well have resulted in his imprisonment, or worse, had it been made public.

This illustrates a classical problem with keeping a diary; what if something personal is revealed to an individual you would rather not know it? This problem is not constrained to diaries. The invention of encryption probably dates to a few moments after the invention of writing.

There is a temporal aspect to this problem. Just as Pepys couldn’t predict that political landscape in Restoration England a decade into the future, we cannot predict what particular datum may become embarrassing in the future. Orthogonal to this are the various bodies of individuals who may come into possession of private information. One must be aware of problems private information might cause in the workplace, the home and with governing powers.

Here are some examples; Imagine confessing in a private Journal that you stole funds from your employer. Or imagine putting in writing that you briefly considered throwing a Molotov Cocktail onto the steps of City Hall because you were angry about a new governmental policy decision. Lastly, imagine writing down that you considered cheating on your spouse. All of these private thoughts might cause immediate difficulty if revealed. Now imagine you innocently wrote that you considered a particular politician deserving a good beating – and then 20 years in the future that politician becomes President of the United States. Further consider what would happen if this future government in its zeal to combat terrorism has come into possession of your old Journal entry and considered you a threat!

Thankfully there is no machine [yet] that can inform the “Thought Police” of our private inner conversations. But once you commit a thought to the page, the possibility of discovery by these “Thought Police” either in the present or in the future, becomes real.

In the event that your want your Journals to be your legacy, say like Leonardo Da Vinci’s, then it is important to safe guard them so that future events will not destroy them. (For an excellent discussion of long term thinking the reader is referred to The Long Now Foundation: www.longnow.org). One might make copies of Journals to safe guard them, and in the digital age this is easier than ever. However, the more copies you make, the more likely someone will encounter them. In fact privacy and legacy are in opposition. The more available you make something to secure your legacy, the more people have access to your private thoughts. Politicians and other public figures have dealt with this problem by mandating a period of time before the works are made public. For example, Anais Nin’s very graphic Journals had details edited out until people who might be hurt by the information in them had died (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anias_Nin#Journals).

More worrisome than private thoughts is genetic information. At this writing, you can have your DNA sequenced for less than $1,000. I have done this. (for example: www.decodeme.com). Why would you want to do this? In my case, it is interesting to know what diseases I might be susceptible to. Perhaps I can prevent them. Also I learned about my genetic ancestory. Last, it might be of interest to someone after I die, to know if my genetic makeup and death had any relationship. But having this information opens the Pandora’s Box of possible discrimination. If I am genetically likely to contract a particularly expensive form of cancer, then an insurance company would certainly be inclined to consider that fact when I knock on the door for a policy. What if I’m a young man who meets the woman of his dreams? When she discovers that she won’t have blue-eyed babies, she might dump me for a more suitable genetic partner! More chillingly, some government in the future may decide that I am not allowed to have children because they are genetically undesirable for some reason (such as diseases, possible criminal disposition or the like). So, once again the opposition of legacy verses privacy is evident.