Privacy in the 21st century (or at least this week)

Digital privacy has been in the news this week. The first story involves a judge ordering a woman to decrypt her laptop. There has been a lot of uninformed commentary surrounding this story, and I thought I’d add my own to the pile. My initial reaction was that it was a pretty blatant violation of the Fifth Amendment, but after further reflection, I’m not so sure. I still struggle to find the right parallel to the physical world.

I don’t believe that decrypting the data is self-incrimination, in and of itself. A person can’t avoid a search warrant by simply locking the door. On the other hand, the police already have the data (in some form) in their possession. There’s no requirement that the data be in a form that the state finds convenient.

Overall, I’m not that concerned with this decision. A valid warrant should be sufficient to require a person to turn over documents in an unencrypted form. Failure to comply is rightly contempt of court. The only problem is when a person legitimately forgets the key, because it is nearly impossible to determine if they have legitimately forgotten. Still, I’m not at all convinced that this ruling is a death knell for the Fifth Amendment.

The other story in the news came from Google, who announced that they are changing their privacy policy for accounts (this does not include search, Wallet, and Chrome). This story has caused no end of hand-wringing, but it seems to me like a severe overreaction. From what I can tell, interactions with third party sites hasn’t changed. The changes mostly make it easier for Google services to share data internally.

To me, that’s part of the appeal of using the variety of services Google offers. What’s the point of a single account if the services aren’t tightly integrated? The lack of an opt-out isn’t a compelling argument to me. Anyone who doesn’t like the privacy policy doesn’t have to use the service (though I’ll admit that if you just bought an Android phone, the cost for leaving (assuming an early termination fee with the carrier) can be prohibitive). There’s an adage that states if you’re not paying, you’re the product. I’m fine with my data being more available across my Google services and hope the promised cool things come to pass. If it ever becomes unacceptable to use Google services, I’ll take my ball and go home.

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