Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Privacy, transparency, credentials and travel: When it could be good to be known

Have you ever waited in line at a security checkpoint thinking: "I wish these people knew exactly who I am, in which case they would know that I'm not a threat and could be waived through?" Maybe it's me, but I have that thought a lot, even though I know full well that the entity doing the controlling might want to know a lot about me in order to give me a free pass or expedited processing.

In fact, when it comes to the U.S. government, it already does know a lot about me. And you might be surprised to hear this, but I'm fine with that, so far.

If I were to place myself on the "privacy meter" on the right, I am very much an open book. This could just be a matter of personality, but as I was standing in line at passport control in Houston last week, it occurred to me that my embrace of transparency may also have something to do with my being an immigrant, a naturalized U.S. citizen, someone who chose to live in America (about 30 years ago).

I think there may be subtle ways in which my attitude to privacy differs from that of some other American citizens, namely, the ones who just happened to be born here and never left. As I sometimes say during presentations about privacy to American audiences: "Unlike most of you, I passed a test to be here." (This line gets a big laugh, even among very conservative audiences, which I take as a sign of the natural good humor and empathy of the American public.)

Actually, I passed a number of tests, and I was fingerprinted by the national law enforcement agency of each country in which I had lived in prior to moving to America (the State Department has my fingerprints on file from the RCMP in Canada, Scotland Yard in the UK, and also the FBI).

So perhaps the experience of becoming a citizen has given me a different perspective on sharing information about myself because I know the benefits that can flow from sharing (like U.S. citizenship), and I have never had any reason to regret that sharing, no reason to distrust those with whom I have shared (which may just be luck, but it is my experience).

My wife, who was born and raised in America, shares my embrace of transparency, partly because she has also seen the benefits. When she was still able to work she made a very healthy income doing a job that required high level security clearances. You don't get those unless you do a whole of sharing about yourself.

Which brings me back to the airport security line. If you know someone has been cleared to handle state secrets, isn't it waste of time to put them through the same security theatrics reserved for people about whom you know much less? As for me, on top of the fact that I was heavily vetted to become a U.S. citizen, I was also vetted when my wife was processed for her clearances. Right now I'm trying to figure if any of fast track traveler ID programs would be cost-effective for me, based on where I tend to travel. In the meantime, I should probably dig out my copy of Steven Nock's slim but thoughtful book The Costs of Privacy: Surveillance and Reputation in America. Here's what I said in my 2001 Amazon review:

Nock highlights the fact that we will not trust others without knowledge of them, so information about others is required before meaningful interaction can be sustained. 
I would argue that trust, vital for economic prosperity and social harmony, requires transparency to flourish. Tell me what you plan to do with my information, and stick to that plan, and I may well hand it over, especially if it brings me benefits, like fewer hassles along the way.

(Privacy meter illustration by yours truly.)

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