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October 26, 2003

Insert Orwell references here

Two privacy related stories caught my eye today.

1) Joanne Jacobs reports on a Buffalo charter school that is tracking students with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. For now, they track school attendance, but the principal "plans to use RFID to track library loans, disciplinary records, cafeteria purchases and visits to the nurse's office. Eventually he'd like to expand the system to track students' punctuality (or lack thereof) for every class and to verify the time they get on and off school buses."

Joanne is cautiously supportive:

I don't know. School is a public place. Library check-outs, school nurse visits and disciplinary problems are on record. This is a more efficient way of keeping attendance and managing school records. And it's a school of choice. Parents who don't want their kid wearing a tracking chip can send them to a school that doesn't keep such close tabs on students.
I was slightly alarmed when I first heard of this story, but given that this is a charter school, I have far fewer concerns. The wonders of competition: let parents choose whether they like this approach or not.

2) The Postal Service is looking into tracking every piece of mail, not just by location of the letter a la FedEx, but by the identity of the sender. They're starting with bulk mailings, but want to expand it to all mail.

The President's Commission on the United States Postal Service recently recommended the use of sender identification for every piece of mail," the Federal Register stated. "Requiring sender-identification for discount-rate mail is an initial step on the road to intelligent mail."

Also cited in the notice are two congressional committee recommendations urging the Postal Service to explore the concept of sender identification, including the "feasibility of using unique, traceable identifiers applied by the creator of the mailpiece."

"We're not ready to go there yet, but we are trying to make an initial step to make all mail, including discount mail, easily identified as to who the sender is," Mr. Walker said.

"Smart stamps" or personalized stamps with an embedded digital code would identify the sender, destination and class.

I have no idea how this would work, logistically. It would require a total reworking of the postal system. You'd either have to be identified at the time of purchase of stamps -- in which case people wouldn't be able to borrow stamps from each other anymore -- or at the time of mailing -- in which case people wouldn't be able to mail for each other anymore.

But logistics aside, this one is scarier than the story above. Unlike the charter school, the Postal Service holds a government monopoly, at least for ordinary mail. Anonymity is an established feature of mail, while it isn't a feature of school attendance. Want to be an anonymous whistleblower? Want to criticize politicians without retribution? Good luck. Indeed, the Supreme Court has upheld the right to speak anonymously in the past; this would make it much more difficult to do so.


3) I guess I could add a third story here, which I saw the other day. Eric Muller of IsThatLegal? proposes a fund-raising technique for traffic cops:

This program brings to mind a question that I have long pondered. It arises for me specifically in the context of the NJ Turnpike, but it pertains to any highway that gives you a toll coupon when you enter the highway and then collects it from you (with a payment) when you leave the highway.

Highways like that strike me as huge potential revenue sources for the states that operate them. Why? Because they offer the possibility of entirely mechanized enforcement of the speeding laws.

Letís say the distance between exit 1 and exit 5 is 65 miles, and the posted speed limit is 65 miles per hour over that entire stretch of highway. If a person is issued a time-stamped entry coupon at Exit 1 at noon and arrives at Exit 5 before 1:00, he has been speeding. Period.

Why not issue him a speeding ticket at exit 5 when he pays his toll and leaves the highway? This would be a superb revenue source for the state, and it would get people to stop speeding far more effectively (and cheaply) than sporadic enforcement by state troopers.

As a technical matter, there's nothing wrong with Muller's idea. Unlike the "smart stamps," its's very simple to implement -- and in fact would be very efficient, more so than the current system. As a political matter, there'd be a riot if they tried to implement this. It wouldn't just be "privacy advocates" complaining. Speeding is a god-given right. If they catch you because you stupidly sped past a police car, that's one thing. If they catch you because Big Brother prevents you from speeding, that's intolerable. You might as well suggest that cars be programmed to read the speed limit from the road signs, and not permit drivers to exceed it.


With all these issues, though, the real problem is that the whole "privacy" debate is ad hoc? We debate slogans on the one hand, and on the other hand, individual policies such as the ones above. People need to sit down and debate the fundamental questions: when do we have the right to anonymity? When do we have the right not to have people know who we are (*), and where we are? Are we ever entitled to these benefits in public? Is the "reasonable expectation of privacy" standard used by the Supreme Court even helpful here?

(*) Which leads me to a current legal dispute in Nevada, over when the police have the right to ask you for identification. But I'll post on that elsewhen.

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