Chicago Law Professor Claims No Privacy In Your Emails, As Long As The Content Isn’t Used To Detain Or Harass You


from the oh-really? dept

Mike Masnick
Tech Dirt
November 18, 2013

Eric Posner, a law professor in Chicago and a full-blown supporter of extreme authoritarian governments (he’s even written a book about why the US presidency needs more power and less respect for the Constitutional separation of powers), is, not surprisingly, a big fan of the NSA’s surveillance efforts. In the past, he’s mocked Snowden and Manning, and talked up why a government that keeps secrets is better than one that’s actually accountable to its public. In other words, he’s the perfect stooge to try to come up with a justification for Rep. Mike Rogers’ ridiculous claims that your privacy isn’t violated if you don’t know about it.

His latest article isn’t directly a justification for that statement — in fact, it doesn’t even mention it — but it’s clearly cut from the same cloth. He makes the argument that the NSA should keep spying on all foreigners in part because they spy on us (and also because he thinks we’re good at it). However, he also has a rather unique interpretation of privacy:

Mass surveillance—where emails and other communications are vacuumed up, stored in databases, and then searched for keywords—doesn’t harm anyone in itself. The problem only arises when the information is used to detain, interrogate, or harass people.

He’s using this bizarre and laughable line of argument to suggest that it’s okay when governments spy on citizens in other countries because their “intelligence agents do not have the time or inclination to harass random Americans, nor the capability as long as Americans remain in the United States.” So, in his mind: no privacy violation happens.

He doubles down on this thinking later, arguing again that if there’s no known “harm” to the individual, there’s no privacy issue at all.

Suppose that the NSA collects the emails of foreigners and conducts searches of them for keywords. Occasionally a false positive turns up, and an analyst reads someone’s email to his lover, therapist, or doctor, ascertains that the email contains no information that identifies terrorists or other security threats, and deletes it. The writer of the email never finds out, and the analyst of course has no idea who this person is. Has a human right been violated? It is hard to identify an affront to human dignity, or even a harm, any more than if a police officer overhears a snatch of personal conversation on the bus.

Of course, how hard is it to reword that paragraph just slightly, to demonstrate the insanity of Posner’s claim?

Suppose that some hackers collect the emails of Eric Posner, and conducts searches of them for keywords. Occasionally a really embarrassing one turns up, and the hacker reads about Posner’s sexual proclivities, financial difficulties, medical problems or similar such things, ascertains that the email contains no information that identifies crimes that Posner is planning to commit and deletes it. Or maybe he saves it for use at a later date. Or to share with a friend. Or a lot of friends. Posner never finds out, and even though the hacker knows who Posner is, he’ll never see him in person. Has a human right been violated? It is hard to identify an affront to human dignity, or even a harm, any more than if a police officer overhears Eric Posner talking on a bus.

Posner’s basic assumption is flat out crazy. He’s arguing that there’s no privacy violation until something bad happens with the information, not when it was seized, and not even when it was perused by human eyes — but only when something nebulously bad happens with it. That makes no sense. The violation comes much earlier. There is real harm in having your information exposed, even if you don’t know about it.

Beyond the fact that Posner is simply wrong about when the privacy violation occurs, even if we accept his wacky argument, he’s still wrong. That’s because he’s making two giant assumptions. First, that such information isn’t abused. He pretends that “national borders” protect spying on foreigners because you can’t do something legally to a person in another country. I would imagine that people killed by US drone strikes might disagree with that assessment. He also argues it’s unlikely that there would be many abuses of this information, because any abuses would harm the spying country and its spies once they came out. Pretty much all of civilized human history suggests that’s wrong. Give people power, as Posner is aching to do, and they abuse it. Over and over again. But, I guess he’s okay with that, just as long as he never finds out about it. Dictatorships and ignorance are bliss!


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