The Privacy Pickle

Well it was a relaxing break for Linux Girl last week as she bolstered her vitamin D stores down on the Linux blogosphere’s sunny southern shores, and she was hoping for a nice, gradual transition back into the thick of things on her return.

Did she get her wish? Of course she didn’t.

No, your trusty reporter of all things Linux was still shaking the sand from her ears when all heck broke loose on Monday morning in the form of a virtual brawl down at the Broken Windows Lounge.

Desktop Linux was apparently the cause of the dispute, and two erstwhile reputable PCWorld bloggers seem to be at the heart of it. Fatalities were initially reported, but they now appear to have been disproven. Linux Girl will report back as she learns more.

‘For Those With Something to Hide?’

In the meantime, another compelling conversation has been raging for some time now, and Linux Girl would be remiss not to cover it, because it’s an important topic.

Privacy, that is — and the costs that go along with it.

“Is privacy only for those with something to hide?” was the title of the open ballot on TuxRadar, specifically, and it’s kicked off quite a debate of its own.

TuxRadar points to the full-disk encryption option now offered by several Linux distributions — along with potential law-enforcement implications — but the topic is also particularly timely in light of Canonical’s recent moves to step up Ubuntu’s privacy protections and privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo’s recent adoption by both Linux Mint and PC-BSD.

Views have been nothing if not divided.

‘Encryption Makes My Job Really Hard’

“Every person has an inherent right to privacy,” wrote aSheepie in the comments on TuxRadar, for example. “This should be fought for and held dear!”

On the other hand: “Speaking as an operative for various government secret sections; I’d like to point out that encryption makes my job really hard,” countered Solid Snake. “I’m here to protect you people from nuclear warfare. Do you know how hard that is to do if they used whole disk encryption on the computer that controlled Metal Gear?

“Think about it, you would see a whole lot more MISSION FAILED!” Solid Snake added.

Then again: “In related news, officials are investigating the legitimacy of public information-obscuring technologies such as curtains, locks and opaque or sound-dampening materials,” quipped Analogous Penguin (aka Eages). “Several members of the political community suggest that privacy is only for those with something to hide. Thus, such devices should be reserved for top-secret organizations — including, for instance, all government departments.”

So which is it? Should we all embrace these new privacy protections, or is the cost just too high? Linux Girl donned her Tux cape and headed down to the blogosphere’s Punchy Penguin Saloon to find out.

‘Government Should Stay Out’

“The world does not owe governments or their police an easy time snooping,” asserted blogger Robert Pogson. “That’s all part of freedom of expression, conscience, and privacy.”

Encryption, meanwhile, “is a valid means of securing data and protecting systems,” Pogson added. “Everyone should do it if they see the need.”

It’s “offensive that several courts have ordered accused people to decrypt, possibly incriminating themselves,” he pointed out. “Police have all kinds of other options for their investigations, including access to computers powerful enough to decrypt, surveillance and search. An accused person should not have to convict himself.”

All in all, “encryption is an important tool in the fight against intrusions, protecting property, fighting malware and ensuring privacy,” Pogson concluded. “Government should stay out of people’s bedrooms, homes, and computers.”

‘We Already Have Thought Crimes’

In fact, “we already have thought crimes here in the USA, folks,” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet pointed out.

“There are at least two people in jail RIGHT NOW for thought crimes: one was the guy who wrote the supposedly ‘pro pedo’ book, which is just his thoughts on the subject in book form, no pictures, no ‘Hey you should go grab a kid today!’ incitement, just his thoughts on the subject,” hairyfeet explained.

“Listen to me, folks: Just as I stand up every chance I get for the ‘pro pedo’ book guy because it’s a thought crime bust, so too MUST YOU STAND UP because it’s ALWAYS the undesirable they use to strip your rights away,” hairyfeet warned.

‘First They Came for…’

“Remember ‘first they came for’?” hairyfeet asked. “Nobody tries the new nasty law against the sweet little old grandma; they always find someone whom they KNOW that nobody will care about or stand up for, and ‘child porn’ — even if there aren’t any actual children, or even any actual people at all for that matter — has become the new Red Scare.

“Do I care if this software ‘hampers law enforcement’?” he went on. “NO — not just no, but HELL NO, because they NEED to be hampered! If anything, law enforcement has run amok in this country.”

It’s up to geeks to “make these tools so common and available that they will have NO choice but to go back to actually investigating and finding actual proof,” hairyfeet concluded. “Because if we don’t fight for our rights, frankly, at the current rate in another decade you simply won’t have them.”

‘It’s Big Business’

Indeed, “we just can’t take privacy for granted anymore,” agreed Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site.

“It seems everyone is trying to make a buck selling any personal information that they can get their hands on,” Hudson explained. “It used to be rude to be nosy — now it’s big business.”

From that perspective, “it’s refreshing to see Ubuntu taking the lead in something that addresses some privacy concerns,” she opined. “This is something that every distro (and operating system) should be doing — making it not only easy to thwart the nosy busybodies, and easy for the individual user to control, is something I want to see more of!”

‘Far, Far Better Than Nothing’

It may fall short of whole-disk encryption, “but there are situations where it’s not practical to encrypt the whole drive, such as multiple users on a shared machine,” Hudson added. “In such cases, not logging data that stores personal activity is far, far better than nothing.”

Last but not least, consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack was less concerned.

“I only care about the data that can be used to harm me, such as credit card number or ssn,” Mack told Linux Girl. “The rest I don’t care about as long as it is anonymized before anyone sees it.”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter.

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