Private Life in Cyberspace

For the June, 1991 Electronic Frontier column in Communications of the ACM
by John Perry Barlow

I have lived most of my life in a small Wyoming town, where there is little of the privacy which both insulates and isolates suburbanites. Anyone in Pinedale who is interested in me or my doings can get most of the information he might seek in the Wrangler Cafe. Between them, any five customers could probably produce all that was known locally about me, including a quite a number of items which were well known but not true.

For most people who have never lived in these conditions, the idea that one's private life might be public knowledge...and, worse, that one's neighbors might fabricate tales about him when the truth would a terrifying thought. Whether they have anything to hide or not (and most everyone harbors something he's not too proud of), they seem to assume that others would certainly employ their private peccadillos against them. But what makes the fishbowl of community tolerable is a general willingness of small towns to forgive in their own all that should be forgiven. One is protected from the malice of his fellows not by their lack of dangerous information about him but by their disinclination to use it.

I found myself thinking a lot about this during a recent San Francisco conference on Computers, Privacy, and Freedom. Like most of the attendees, I had arrived there bearing the assumption that there was some necessary connection between privacy and freedom and that among the challenges to which computers may present to our future liberties was their ability to store, transfer, and duplicate the skeletons from our closets.

With support from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Apple Computer, the WELL, and a number of other organizations, the conference was put on by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a group which has done much to secure to Americans the ownership of their private lives.Their Man in Washinton, Marc Rotenberg, hit the hot key which resulted in Lotus getting 30,000 letters, phone calls, and e-mail messages protesting the release of Lotus Marketplace: Households.

In case you haven't left your terminal in awhile, this was a product whose CD-ROM's of addresses and demographic information would have ushered in the era of Desktop Junkmail. Suddenly anyone with 600 bucks and a CD-ROM drive could have been stuffing your mailbox with their urgent appeals.

Marketplace withered under the heat, and I didn't hear a soul mourn its passage. Most people seemed happy to leave the massive marketing databases in institutional hands, thinking perhaps that junkmail might be one province where democracy was better left unspread.

I wasn't so sure. For example, it occurred to me that Lotus could make a strong legal, if not commercial, case that Marketplace was a publication protected by the First Amendment. It also seemed that a better approach to the scourge of junkmail might be political action directed toward getting the Postal Service to raise its rates on bulk mailing. (Or perhaps even eliminating the Postal Service, which seems to have little function these days beyond the delivery of instant landfills.) Finally, I wondered if we weren't once again blaming the tool and not the workman, as though the problem were information and not its misuse. I felt myself gravitating toward the politically incorrect side of the issue, and so I kept quiet about it.

At the Conference on Computers, Privacy, and Freedom, the no one was keeping quiet. Speaker after speaker painted a picture of gathering informational fascism in which Big Brother was entering our homes dressed in the restrained Italian suit of the Marketroid. Our every commercial quiver was being recorded, collated, and widely redistributed. One began to imagine a Cyberspace smeared all over with his electronic fingerprints, each of them gradually growing into a full-blown virtual image of himself as Potential Customer. I could see an almost infinite parade of my digital simulacra marching past an endless wall of billboards.

There was discussion of opting out of the databases, getting through modern American life without ever giving out one's National Identity Number (as the Social Security Number has indisputably become by default), endeavoring to restrict one's existence to the physical world. The poor fellow from Equifax mouthed smooth corporatisms about voluntary restraints on the secondary use of information...such practices as selling the fact of one's purchase from one catalog to fifteen other aspirants...but no one believed him. Everyone seemed to realize that personal information was as much a commodity as pork bellies, fuel oil, or crack and that the market would be served.

They were right. In the week following the Conference, I got a solicitation from CACI Marketing Systems which began: Now Available! Actual 1990 Census Data. This despite Department of Commerce assurances that Census Data would not be put to commercial use. Marketplace is dead. Long live Marketplace.

When it came down to solutions, however, there seemed to be developing a canonical approach which was all too familiar: let's write some laws. The European Community's privacy standards, scheduled to be implemented by the member nations in 1992, were praised. Similar legislation was proposed for the United States.

Quite apart from the impracticality of entrusting to government another tough problem (given its fairly undistinguished record in addressing the environmental, social, or educational responsibilities it already has), there is a good reason to avoid this strategy. Legally assuring the privacy of one's personal data involves nothing less than endowing the Federal Government with the right to restrict information.

It may be that there is a profound incompatibility between the requirements of privacy (at least as achieved by this methods) and the requirements of liberty. It doesn't take a paranoid to believe that restrictions placed on one form of information will expand to include others. Nor does it take a Libertarian to believe that the imposition of contraband on a commodity probably won't eliminate its availability. I submit, as Exhibit A, the War on Some Drugs.

I began to envision an even more dystopian future in which the data cops patrolled Cyberspace in search of illicit personal info, finding other items of legal interest along the way. Meanwhile, institutions who could afford the elevated price of illegal goods would continue to buy it from thuggish Data Cartels in places like the Turks and Caicos Islands, as sf-writer Bruce Sterling predicted in Islands in the Net.

I returned to Wyoming in a funk. My ghostly electronic selves increased their number on my way home as I bought airline tickets, charged to my credit cards, make long distance phone calls, and earned another speeding ticket. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that nothing short of a fugitive cash-based existence would prevent their

continued duplication. And even that would never exorcise them all. I was permanently on record.

Back in Pinedale, where I am also on record, my head started to clear. Barring government regulation of information, for which I have no enthusiasm, it seemed inevitable that the Global Village would resemble a real village at least in the sense of eliminating the hermetic sealing of one's suburban privacy. Everyone would start to lead as public a life as I do at home.

And in that lies at least a philosophical vector towards long-term social solution. As I say, I am protected in Pinedale not by the restriction of information but by a tolerant social contract which prohibits its use against me. (Unless, of course, it's of such a damning nature that it ought to be used against me.) What may be properly restricted by government is not the tool but the work that is done with it. If we don't like junkmail, we should make it too expensive to send. If we don't trust others not to hang us by our errors, we must work to build a more tolerant society.

But this approach has a fundamental limit on its effectiveness. While it may, over the long run, reduce the suffering of marketing targets, it does little to protect one from the excesses of a more authoritarian government than the one we have today. This Republic was born in the anonymous broadsides of citizens who published them under Latinate pseudonyms like Publius Civitatus. How would the oppressed citizens of the electronic future protect the source of rebellion?

Furthermore, much of the tolerance which I experience in Pinedale has to do with the fact that we experience one another here. We are not abstracted into information, which, no matter how dense it becomes, is nothing to grow a human being from. And it will be a long time before we exist in Cyberspace as anything but information.

While I generally resist technical solutions to social problems, it seems best approach to this digital dilemma is also machine-based: encryption. At the CFP Conference, EFF co-founder John Gilmore called on the computer industry to include in their products tools which would enhance the privacy of their communications. These might include hardware-based public key encryption schemes, though these are probably too narrow in scale to cover the whole problem.

He also noted that it is possible to have an electronic identity which is not directly connected to one's physical self. I agree with him that it is not only possible but advisable. From the standpoint of credit assurance, there is no difference between the information that John Perry Barlow always pays his bills on time or that Account #345 8849 23433 (to whomever that may belong) is equally punctilious.

There are, of course, a number of problems with encrypted identity, not the least of which the development of a long-term credit record attached to disembodied number. And keeping that number disembodied over the same long term is not a trivial enterprise. Finally, there is the old political question..."What are you trying to hide?" which the effort to conceal is taken to be a statement of guilt. This might limit a willingness on the part of information carriers to engage in the compliance necessary to make this system work.

Of course, neither machine-based encryption systems nor encrypted identities will become reality unless the computer, communications, and information industries perceive there to be technically feasible methods of providing these services and people willing to pay for them. ACM members are well situated to provide both the technology and the initial market for it.

And, as usual, we would be well-advised to keep of abreast of political developments. As I write this, there are before congress a Couple of bills which would render encryption meaningless. Senator Joseph Biden has introduced Senate Bill 266 which declares:

It is the sense of Congress that providers of electronic communications systems permit the government to obtain the plain text contents of voice, data, and other communications when appropriately authorized by law.

It appears that the FBI's concern in requesting this language was the difficulty of tapping multiplexed phone lines, but the bill nevertheless says, "turn over your encryption keys." These words probably won't become law, but even if they don't, it seems certain that we haven't seen the last of them, inasmuch as similar language is also to be found in S. 618, The Violent Crime Control Act of 1991. Both of these bills address a legitimate law-enforcement concern: how to build a case when all the evidence is encrypted, but as in other areas of information vs. action, they should place their focus on the dirty deed and not the planning of it.

Another legislative vicinity to watch are efforts to amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to address more adequately cellular and other wireless technologies. This is especially relevant since, as Nicholas Negroponte has predicted, information which has traditionally flowed through cables, like telephone conversations, are taking to the air while broadcast information is moving underground. Entirely different assumptions prevail between broadcast and one-to-one communications which will now be questioned legally and technically.

EFF believes that legal constraints on intercepting private wireless communications will not be sufficient to address the problem. Cellular manufacturers and service providers must be urged provide their customers with the cheap encryption methods which are already available. At the same time, they should be legally required to inform their customers of the easy

interception of non-encrypted communications. Finally, in our zeal to protect the privacy of cellular conversation, we should be careful not to criminalize simple scanning of the airwaves, most of which has no specific target or intent, lest we pass laws which inhibit access to information.

All in all, we are looking at some tough challenges, both technologically and politically. Computer technology has created not just a new medium but a new place. The society we erect there will probably be quite different from the one we now inhabit, given the fact that this one depends heavily on the physical property of things while the next one has no physical properties at all. Certain qualities should survive the transfer, however, and these include tolerance, respect for privacy of others, and a willingness to treat one's fellows as something besides potential customers.

But until we have developed the Social Contract of Cyberspace, we must create, though encryption and related means, the virtual envelopes and rooms within which we can continue to lead private lives as we enter this new and very public place. Pinedale, Wyoming March 30, 1991