Is my paranoia at all justified?
December 22, 2005 4:01 AM   Subscribe

In relation to this post on the subject of personal privacy: is there really good reason to be concerned? Is there any point in keeping personal information private anymore?

I have always been told by my parents growing up that you should destroy letters with your address on, avoid giving out personal information and I have always tried to maintain a healthy level of paranoia. More and more though, events are testing this point of view. So in the modern world, how can I explain why it is that I am paranoid, and am I justified to be that way?

This includes such issues as identity cards, security cameras, etc. The usual 1984 inspired stuff.
posted by Acey to Society & Culture (13 answers total)
There are really two separate issues here. One is the protection of personal information that would allow someone access to your bank account, credit cards, and so on. The other is the issue of surveillance used to detect and deter crime, and to provide evidence in relation to that.

Personally, I'm not so paranoid when it comes to the whole 'identity theft' thing that's all the rage these days. Of course, basic measures (like not giving out your credit card information willy-nilly) are plain common sense. And if you decide to extend that sort of protection to other areas of personal information, then it's perfectly reasonable for you to do that: it isn't going to hurt anyone, and it might save your ass one day.

The issue of surveillance (wiretapping, security cameras, etc.) is quite separate. Personally, I'm all for surveillance, but only if it's used as an after-the-fact piece of evidence, rather than a primary track-and-trace method of detecting crime in the first place. Surveillance as a concept on its own is not really where you should be directing your paranoia -- you should be looking at how that data is intended to be used, by whom, and what safeguards are in place to stop it falling into the wrong hands. A healthy dose of paranoia in that area will help you decide where you draw the line between useful evidence gathering and privacy-invading live surveillance.
posted by chrismear at 5:22 AM on December 22, 2005

I don't see surveillance as having any relevance to the question, which is about personal information.

I do what I can to hide all my information. It's not enough to stop someone who knows how to find out about me, but I am definitely not going to make it any easier for them. At least I can be less vulnerable to casual crooks.

If you think it's not a big deal, you haven't talked with anyone who's had their identity stolen. It is a big deal. it usually takes years to get cleared up, and you have to keep explaining to lenders and others throughout that period just why your finances look so bad.

Do what you can, and don't worry about the rest.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:16 AM on December 22, 2005

And now I do see the phrase "security cameras" in the original question. I don't worry about those either, if they're in public places.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:18 AM on December 22, 2005

The reason why the framers put the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 9th, 14th amendments in place were to make sure that if the citizens wanted to overthrow the government they would be able to do so. They had a hard time overthrowing their own corrupt government and wanted to make sure it would be easier next time. You see, having the government know that it's citizens could rise up at any time and take them down was seen as a good thing - a nice check to make sure the government continued to represent the will of the people.
posted by any major dude at 6:40 AM on December 22, 2005

Um, you should add the 2nd amendment to that list. Not that I'm a gun nut (far from it), but hey, that's what it's there for.

Also, the framers didn't write the 14th, it's a Civil War Amendment.
posted by zpousman at 6:46 AM on December 22, 2005

you are right on both points zpousman. The more I see this government move toward corporate totalitarianism, the more I understand the second amendment.
posted by any major dude at 6:51 AM on December 22, 2005

Whenever the subject of personal privacy is brought up, I'm reminded of this parable:
Two fellows are walking through the jungle when they notice a tiger emerge from the bush ahead. One fellow bends down and tightens his shoelaces inspiring his mate to joke,"What are you going to out run a tiger?"

"No, I just need to outrun you."
posted by Loser at 7:19 AM on December 22, 2005

I must be dense; what does that parable have to do with personal privacy?
posted by odinsdream at 7:48 AM on December 22, 2005

I think Loser means that so long as your personal information is harder to get to than most people's, you're relatively safe.
posted by fidelity at 8:24 AM on December 22, 2005

I just wanted to point out the myth that chrismear appears to buy, which is that you are safe from credit fraud if you don't give out your credit information willy-nilly.

I don't do that, in fact I thought I was fairly careful. I even have a shredder which I use on every piece of personally identifying mail, and still I've had two credit fraud incidents hit me this year. One of them has over 50 line-items of fraud, and continues to this day. I did nothing wrong other than use my credit cards, and my information was stolen and used to forge a card. I think it was stolen from the credit processing systems heist which came out in September, since that is about when the fraud incidents started.
posted by Invoke at 10:04 AM on December 22, 2005

So your credit card information was stolen from the credit card processing system itself? Surely no amount of shredding your mail is going to prevent that kind of fraud. I stand by my position.
posted by chrismear at 11:37 AM on December 22, 2005

No, my point was that not giving your information out "willy-nilly" doesn't change the fact that committing credit fraud appears to be just one step from trivially easy for criminals. The question really is "where is the best 'bang for the buck' point in the paranoia continuum?"

Of course it depends on your goals, but I'd place that line considerably higher toward the paranoid than you seem to place it.
posted by Invoke at 12:31 PM on December 22, 2005

I never claimed that my very basic common-sense security measures are going to somehow magically protect me from all possible forms of credit card fraud. Obviously they won't. But in terms of bang-for-your-buck security, I get a very good rate of return out of practices like:

(a) looking after my wallet when I'm out;
(b) only giving my CC details to reputable retailers;
(c) not writing down my PINs;
(d) not falling for phishing emails.

This kind of stuff directly protects me against the most trivial, crude, basic ways of getting at my information and committing fraud against me.

Once I've cut off these avenues, the next most likely way that someone is going to get at my money is via some kind of attack like your credit card processing system example. And, yes, my practices do nothing to prevent that sort of thing. But, I suspect, neither does your comprehensive mail shredding habit. It's basically out of our hands.

You say that my measures do nothing to change the fact that credit card fraud is one step from trivially easy. By the same argument, neither do your heightened security measures. But at least my practices are easy measures to directly address specific fraud techniques, whereas I really don't see what your mail shredding is going to accomplish.
posted by chrismear at 1:15 PM on December 22, 2005

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