This article was published in the Summer 1996 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
Security of Information in a Free Nation
by Richard O. Hammer

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Dark Rivers of the Heart
Private Policing of Data Works Better
Information Flow in a Free Nation

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Thanks to a tip from one of our readers, I read a thriller, Dark Rivers of the Heart, by Dean Koontz.1 It has libertarian themes, casting big government in the role of villain. So I considered writing a review of it for Formulations. But the book does not help us with the FNF work plan, to build a beacon to noncoercive society.

I noticed that Koontz's plot relied upon the ability of the main characters, hackers par excellence, to sneak into supposedly-secure computer databanks and find what they wanted to know about their adversaries. While such theft of data may happen routinely in a government-diseased society such as America, I believe that in a free nation personal data would be more secure.

So in this column I will mix purposes. First I will tell you a little more about the book. Then I will tell why I think invasions of privacy, such as occurred in this book, will not happen in a free nation.

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Dark Rivers of the Heart

From start to finish the two protagonists run for their lives. In moments of calm they: 1) dare to show each other their scars from a past in which their mothers, among others, were murdered; 2) fall in love. A dog, also with a scarred past, tags along the whole way, and warms otherwise-too-chilling passages.

Among the evil forces in the book, we have: 1) a secret agency in the U.S. government which covers its murders with lies; 2) secretive serial killers who yearn most to share, with someone who will understand, the rewards they get from killing.

Both sides in this plot connect their portable computers, through phone lines or satellites, to mainframe computers. From that platform they connect through networks to: 1) government databases including those of police, DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles), military, and registrars of deeds; 2) "private"2 databases including those of banks, utilities (telephone, electric), credit card companies, and catalog-sales companies.

I enjoyed the book. But Koontz was too kind to big government. We can blame government not only for murders in the plot, but also for lack of privacy in cyberspace, as Koontz portrayed it.

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Private Policing of Data Works Better

Join me in noticing something crucial about the databases, both government and "private", which the characters in Koontz's plot regularly violated. Notice that government has seized, for the most part, the power and the will to punish invasion of these databases. Suppose an administrator of one of these databases notices an intrusion, and knows that a theft is taking place. What can that administrator do? Dial 911?

The administrator of a database receives, I assume, almost no support from government in fighting intrusions. If an administrator reports an intrusion to a government prosecutor, the prosecutor will probably ignore the report, because the prosecutor has other priorities. Alternatively, the administrator could try to get justice through civil law. But that is expensive and promises little chance of achieving restitution.

So, it seems that hackers can try, almost with impunity, to invade computer databases. In America, as portrayed by Koontz, they need not fear that some force will punish their theft. Law in America has been stolen by government, and we have no reason to expect that government will run law any better than it runs anything else.3

An administrator of a given database can, of course, invest in improving security with better systems of password protection and identification of users. But locks can be expensive, can fail, and motivation to use locks properly can be lacking. The task of protecting databases from invasion would be easier if locks were supplemented with an environment of law which promised to punish invaders.

In other ways government aggravates the problem of insufficient privacy in computer databases.

1) If a person in America wants some service, such as driver's license, telephone, or electricity, usually there is no choice: you must buy that service from a government-run or overnment-regulated
monopoly. Having no competition, these monopolies have no incentive to offer improvements in
service. One improvement which they might offer to attract new customers would be greater privacy.  

2) In many cases government in America dictates what information must be collected regarding certain individuals. This applies for instance to DMV records.  

3) In other cases involving "fair credit" laws, I expect government tells companies what data they may and may not request from applicants.  

Thus government creates an environment in which we can predict certain behavior on the part of administrators of databases. After government has issued all these commands about the content of databases, and has taken control of the only real means to punish thieves of data, what can we expect these administrators to do? I would say that we can expect these people to make a show of caring about security, but we cannot expect them to protect the data with any vigor.

And the problem feeds upon itself. Some data in America is so insecure that it could be obtained from many sources. This frees particular sources from responsibility, as each source can claim that the data might have been stolen elsewhere.

For a contrast to the poorly-policed databases in Koontz's novel, let us look at some other examples. These are under private control, and are better policed.  

1) In my office I have a drawer of files with information about all the jobs I did for customers while I ran a residential remodeling and building business. While there seems to be nothing crucial about this
data, still I feel some responsibility: I should not allow unpoliced access to data such as the paint color of people's bedrooms, or the bids submitted by subcontractors. To my knowledge there has never been an unwarranted intrusion into these files. And if I did suspect such an intrusion, I would be troubled, and would increase my effort at policing till I felt confident that the leak had been stopped.  

2) Consider your own personal business. Do you have files, perhaps in a computer, which you would rather keep private? If so, do you have reason to believe that someone snoops around in your files and steals your secrets? I am betting that you guard your secrets, with about as much energy as you feel necessary to keep them secure.  

These examples, of private protection of private data, illustrate the norm that I believe would emerge regarding protection of data in a free nation.

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Information Flow in a Free Nation

Information in a free nation will be exchanged when both parties win. Thus exchange follows the same rule as other voluntary exchange: no party may be compelled. Parties, of course, may be enticed to give information in exchange for some benefits of trade.

People who want privacy will find, I expect, vendors who advertise privacy as one attribute of their product offering. I expect an array of privacy products.

One of these products, I expect, will be something like bonding. Let me point out that vendors who collect personal data about their customers do this, not so much because they are naturally snoopy, but because they want to be sure they are not going to be cheated in this business deal; personal data offers them some security. So we can see the business opportunities. On the one hand we see the needs of vendors: to be sure that they will be paid; and to be sure that customers will not violate other trust (such as to return a rented car). On the other hand we see the needs of customers: for privacy and anonymity. In the middle we see opportunities for entrepreneurs: create bonding or contractual arrangements which satisfy the needs at both hands.

Let us end with a brief, and encouraging, look at history. The total wealth possessed by humans has increased dramatically. In the continual struggle between property owners and would-be thieves, property owners seem to be holding their own and winning. People who want wealth for themselves discover, for the most part, that their best chance to attain wealth lies not in trying to break through someone else's lock but in working through accepted channels which create new wealth.

In a free nation I expect possessions will abound. Among these will be privacy, with, as always, the caveat that trading partners may not be cheated or injured. D

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1 Published in 1994 by Alfred A. Knopf.

2 I put quotation marks around some uses of "private" because, in these cases, the privacy (as I use the term) is more nominal than real. I contend that a person owns something only if that person has power to choose how to use that thing. To the extent that government has taken power to make choices, then those choices, and the things controlled by those choices, are no longer private but become what I call public space.

3 See The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State, by Bruce Benson, 1990.

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