Peeping Tom Friedman

It’s closing in on ten years since my last pitiful appearance in the Times, and an opportunity arose to try again. The front page of the Times website teased Friedman: Blogosphere, so I figured he was contributing some more suck-ups to the bloggers with the usual grab-bag of metaphors. In that sense, Friedman didn’t disappoint with “The Whole World is Watching.” And there he was, conflating business transparency (a very good thing) with the end-of-personal-privacy (a bad thing, which I’ve been digging into over the last week).

Mindful of the icy observation from Matt Taibbi of the New York Press (“Friedman is such a genius of literary incompetence that even his most innocent passages invite feature-length essays”), I considered limiting my response. To set the stage here, Friedman had imagined that he’d need to be over-polite to a woman claiming her place at a an airport news stand on the probabilty that she would have a cameraphone ready and subsquently blog about her encounter with the rude Times columnist. I decided on the ironic counterpoint before laying down a solid closing sentence, punching it out at 137 words:

Dear Mr. Friedman:

Regarding your encounter with a harried air traveler (“The Whole World is Watching”), your hypothetical response was too tame for an intrepid journalist in pursuit of all the news fit to transmit. Why should we readers be denied the image of her piercing stare? Surely your phone can also capture video at these everyday intercourse, so why not send it to YouTube, for us out here in cyberland to dig up what we can on that sorry women– her name, number, and political contributions for all the world to judge, jury, and execute?

Some perspective should be in order here. Of course we ought to let a little more sunlight in to the governing of public enterprises– but not, in the process, blind ourselves to the right of individual privacy ensconced by Justice Brandeis a century ago.

Jon Garfunkel

If the Times doesn’t print this, it’s because they don’t realize there’s actually a real news story hidden in there. A 23-year old Tennessee man named Phillip Hullquist is now facing 2 felony counts in Michigan for exposing the phone number and email address of a woman named Amanda Brunzell, as he believed she had stolen a video camera from him while the two roomed together with a third person on San Pedro Island in Texas. (the circumstantial evidence he pulled up is quite damning, and I can understand his exasperation with the pace of the police investigation– it appears that all they had to do was confirm the account of the user on SwapAce who was selling a remarkably similar camera. But SwapAce is a UK company!). Hullquist appealed to any readers to “Please be nice to her and don’t make any threats” (so says Google’s cache) and his Digg post said “Kindly tell her.” This may be important, since the statute requires that the post is “intended to cause conduct that would make the victim feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested.”

With a little creativity Hullquist could have avoided the prvacy rap and found the camera. He knew that the SwapAce site had a seller with the handle of DevilDolphin8064 posting from Grand Rapids, which just happened to be the same as the email address and geographic address of Brunzell. Perhaps Hullquist could have used YouTube and Digg to find allies who would flush out the public persona of the SwapAce seller and not the private person of Brunzell. After all, the messags to DevilDolphin8064 would not have been personal in nature; no one would have needed to know her name. Whoever complained about repeated messages to the SwapAce account to the police would then have to explain how she came in possession of the camera. (Then again, stings don’t always work as smoothely as they do in the the Ocean’s Eleven franchise. Besides, anyone as capable as Danny & Rusty in the real world would charge for their advice).

It’s the use of a proxy here which enables us to achieve accountability while preserving privacy. The proxy service is at the heart of the PONAR protocol.

Back to Friedman and his casual dismissal of privacy. I mentioned Brandeis at the end because Friedman himself went to the school named after the honored jurist. Brandeis’s most enduring legal concepts are the pillars of liberalism: sunlight as the “best of disinfectants” and the right to privacy. It was his famous 1890 paper on the latter subject (co-authored with Samuel Warren) where Brandeis forcefully argued that no new invention renders privacy obsolete; it makes it more necssary.

The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury.

The blessing of modern inventions is bringing alive Louis Brandeis once again to guide us through our turbid Times.