Libertarians and the Privacy of Friends
This was written for L. Neil Smith's The
Libertarian Enterprise back in 1997, but it had the misfortune
to arrive at the moment Neil lost his editor to resignation,
and lost much of his property and some of his health to
a sudden flood. It finally got published in TLE in the
summer of 1998. Anyway, it's not one of my major efforts;
just a personal response to a mildly creepy situation
I encountered. Since then, a couple of similar things
have happened. I continue to be amazed at how casually
freedom lovers will endanger other people's privacy.
A decade ago, I was stalked by a man who threatened to kill me. When I realized no amount of cajoling, reasoning, legal action or avoidance would end his obsession, I left town and left the state, telling just three close friends where I was headed.
All three were sworn to secrecy. All three understood what I faced. All three knew my stalker was notorious for using subterfuges to get information. Yet eventually, two of them, quite casually, gave my address and phone number to the first people who asked for it.
"Oh, but she said it was urgent to get in touch with you."
"Oh, but he was an old client of yours."
Nobody asked me first. As it turned out, none of the three revealed my whereabouts to the stalker, either. But by then it was a moot point.
I had already revealed my own location, entirely by accident.
It was one of those simple, unthinking things. I left a change of address form with the post office. Confidential, right? But my former state's Libertarian Party affiliate sent a third-class mailing with "address correction requested." The post office gave them my new address. My stalker had access to the party's mailing list.
I moved again.
My stalker is long gone. Nevertheless, the experience has stayed with me, leaving me cautious and wary. I was amazed to learn how easy it was to blow apart my own privacy, or have it blown, in all innocence, by careless friends.
Since then, I've also taken steps not only to guard information about my physical location, but about every sort of personal information. My informal motto has become, "Be paranoid. It's good for you."
Nevertheless, my privacy is occasionally violated from unexpected quarters. I see the same thing happening to others, as well.
Some cases in point:
Recently, I received a phone call from someone I'd never met. I was actually delighted to hear from him, since he was someone whose work I'd long admired. But I was puzzled as to how he had come by my unlisted telephone number. "I got it from X."
But how had X gotten it? From Y. And how had Y gotten it? From Z. And how had Z gotten it? From A -- who had in turn gotten it from me with instructions to share it with no one. None of these people intend me the slightest harm. Quite the contrary. But I'm surprised that not one of them stopped and asked, "Should I give out this information?"
The second case occurred just this morning -- and has much more ominous overtones. A friend -- who very carefully did not violate my privacy -- forwarded an e-mail he had received from a rather emotional stranger. The stranger was trying to locate my snail address, e-mail address or phone number. He had done a net search on me, and listed the things he had been able to learn in half an hour.
He was steaming with frustration that he had found no contact information. My temperature rose over something he had been able to find -- my weekend travel plans! Someone else had evidently posted them to a public e-mail list and there they were, revealed by a simple session with an Internet search engine.
Something similar recently happened to a prominent LP activist. He asked a supporter to make hotel reservations for him and, for whatever reason, the supporter posted the reservation to a public list, complete with dates, hotel name and confirmation number. The activist was not a subscriber to this list, so he wasn't aware this very private information had gone public. Anyone with access to the list could have used that information to stalk the activist, record his movements or even pretend to be him.
Again, in both these cases, no actual harm was done. The stranger found my travel plans only after I'd returned home. A list subscriber got a message to the activist's wife. The activist stayed elsewhere.
But the potential for harm was considerable. Sadly, both violations were committed by libertarians.
Do I know of anyone who wants to harm me or the activist? No. Can we ever be confident someone does not want to harm us? No again. And double ditto given the fact of our outspoken advocacy of resistance to unjust government power.
I expect libertarians, of all people, to know better than to violate others' privacy. But it ain't necessarily so.
And as you can see by the example at the top of this story, sometimes the most stringent warnings carry no weight. People forget. It isn't their life that might be in danger. It isn't their personal security at risk. The person asking them for the information "seems okay." ("You couldn't have possibly have meant I shouldn't tell good old Joe!") They don't have enough at stake to inspire them to take someone else's privacy seriously.
Alas, after bitching about the sins of others, I must confess that I, too, have sometimes violated others' privacy. For instance, I once published a person's address without asking his permission. Because this person had posted his address to various Fidonet echoes in the past, I felt reasonably secure using the information, and when there was no time to ask, I just did it. Fortunately, when I later met the person at a gathering, his only complaint was that I hadn't included his new e-mail address and web page.
Nevertheless, I apologized to him. I made the wrong choice. I will always, in the future, take the most prudent course and not risk revealing personal information. Because, next time, an apology may come too late.
I don't merely want to bitch and confess. I also want to thank the many people who have cherished and helped guard their friends' privacy -- all the people who've checked before giving out information about others, or who have used their own judgment to turn aside inquiries from people who "just didn't seem right." Within the very ranks of this publication, there are several such wonderful human beings. They are precious friends to have, and they will be precious allies when the fight for freedom escalates.
The world can be a dangerous place for anybody. But as the world becomes an even more dangerous place for political dissidents, we need, more than ever, to have good, careful friends on our side.
With that in mind (and because I slip, too) I've created, with Charles Curley's help, a 10-point list for my own reference. Maybe someone else will find this list helpful, too. Maybe someone will add to it, because the lesson of my experience says I can't think of everything.The All Purpose Protecting Other People's Privacy List
- Never, never, ever give out anyone's phone number or snail address without first checking with the person. Don't even think about it. Just make it a routine.
- Use discretion when giving out anyone's e-mail address. Even though e-mail addresses tend to be more widely distributed and less confidential than street addresses, they can still be misused. When in doubt, ask.
- Remember that some e-mail addresses point to people's physical locations. Workplace domains, like those of Hewlett-Packard or Microsoft, can lead strangers practically to a person's office. So can college and university (.edu) domains. Don't give these out without express permission.
- When sending electronic mailings to a list of people, send the message to yourself and bcc (blind copy) everyone else, unless all the people you're sending to know each other, or unless you can personally vouch for the good character of them all. Using this method, no one's address but yours appears on the message.
- Never, never, ever post any form of personal information about someone to a public e-mail list or Usenet group. No matter how small and intimate we may think some of these discussion groups are, we have no way of knowing who might be lurking, or for what purpose. All Usenet groups and many e-mail lists are archived. Information that may appear harmless now may not be so harmless in five or ten years.
- If you store personal information about friends or political acquaintances anywhere on your computer, encrypt it.
- Be aware of what's on your screen when others are present or when you leave the room. Have a quick way of blanking the screen or closing out a program. When in low-tech mode, make sure never to leave envelopes, address books, etc. where others can see them.
- Occasionally, someone might want to snail mail something to an acquaintance of yours. In that case, you could offer to forward the missive. Tell the person making the request to give you the message in a stamped, open envelope. Address the envelope and insert a note telling the recipient how you came to be sending the package. The recipient can decide whether to respond.
- Beware the "innocent" questions of strangers! Headhunters, feds, detectives and other snoops routinely begin with "harmless" questions when tracking down information.
- Make sure any organizations in which you are involved -- especially libertarian ones! -- adopt similar practices.
And when you run into a situation not covered by this list, remember: Be paranoid. It's good for you. And it's good for your friends, as well.