Interesting analogy, I enjoyed imagining Gandhi slowly metamorphosing into a murderous tyrant. The Schelling fence idea reminds me of a ‘prenup’ that you agree upon (with yourself). I’ve read of similar advice for negotiators: it’s important to set strict limits for an acceptable price prior to the start of the bargain to prevent exactly the same type of slippery slope traps that you brought up. In a purely numerical realm, I think this is certainly possible. But, like you said, it seems that it’s difficult to do the same with other more complicated issues that can’t be reduced to a single number (i.e. privacy). How can you create an effective fence when you have no map? Perhaps, then, we need to take a shot at creating a reasonable privacy map.
What types of numerical scales can we use to quantify privacy? Can those metrics be applied to existing societies to enact laws that declare a base level of privacy as a human right? In the U.S., the current ‘base’ level appears to be the 4th Amendment to the constitution (the prohibition of ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’). Recently, an interesting computer science research paper used a machine learning approach to try and quantify “the point at which long-term government surveillance becomes objectively unreasonable”. Their conclusion was that approximately 1 week of GPS tracking was enough to uniquely identify an individual. Maybe we can use this numerical limit as a starting point for privacy legislation. Can you think of any other ones?
The article linked above also has a fascinating study of a recent supreme court case:
“Antoine Jones, a nightclub owner in Washington, D.C., was suspected by the police of dealing drugs. The local police, working with federal agents, put a GPS tracking device on his car, without a warrant, and gathered his location data for four weeks. Mr. Jones was initially convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy… The Supreme Court [overturned the verdict and] ruled for Mr. Jones, saying his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated because [of] the GPS device on his car.’
I would argue that federal agents attaching a tracking device to your car is the privacy equivalent of an aerial drone filming you doing something revealing. Sure, it’s certainly possible, but the real problem is the fundamental reality of location-aware devices. Most people do not have federal agents tailing them undercover, but we do carry around smartphones that can periodically send location information to a central database. As Supreme court Justice Sotomayor did in her analysis of the case, we can imagine the potential for that data “to detect trips of an ‘indisputably private nature.’” Certainly information about “trips to a psychiatrist, abortion clinic, AIDS treatment center, strip club and mosque” should be private, shouldn’t it? If we limit how much location data can be saved without our consent, we can keep our privacy.
You say that ‘red-herring’ drones can serve to bolster our defences against other, more subtle, attacks against our privacy. While this may be true indirectly, the entire point of a ‘red-herring’ is that it serves as a distraction. Our attention is focused on it in order to direct conversation away from the other pernicious attempts to exploit our personal information. I think the term that’s more appropriate here is the ‘canary in the coal mine’. Let’s acknowledge the herrings but focus on the dead canaries.
I hope I didn’t drone on too much.