I was a young technology policy reporter in January 1999 when Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems said at a public event, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” The remarks created a firestorm, with criticism coming even from government officials. But as I saw it, McNealy was not saying that the end of privacy was a good thing, just that it was reality of the wired age, and that to pretend it wasn’t so was to be naive.
In “From Freedom to Fascism”, Aaron Russo spends a lot of time on RFID tagging, REAL ID, and the like. These are scary technologies, to be sure. But the issue is not their mere existence; it is how they are used — and by whom.
As I type this, online, I have “zero privacy”. Folks can see where I am logged in from, what applications I am using, and so on. When I order a pizza online (as I intend to do in a few minutes), that order will be relayed through various servers to my local pizza place, the company’s overall database, to my credit card company, to credit agencies, and on and on. When I go to Amazon or any other major e-commerce site, I get a list of things I might want to buy — which a machine picks out because it has assembled a database of my likes and dislikes. There’s a fictitious scence in “From Freedom To Fascism” in which a man calls to order a pizza and finds out the anonymous, chipper voice on the other end of the line knows his credit history, his purchasing history from other vendors, his health information, and more. It’s just a slight exaggeration.
I have “zero privacy”, but in some ways I choose to accept the tradeoff. I don’t really mind vendors keeping data on me, because it lets them target me for things I might actually like to buy. It’s mutually advantageous: I see stuff I might like, and they find a potentially willing customer. They don’t waste time mass-marketing to uninterested folks, and I am not inundated with ads for things I don’t care about. This is a good “abuse” of information.
But it’s good because it’s voluntary. Every time anyone says or does anything publicly, that individual gives up some privacy. We do this hundreds of times a day; it’s called communication. The problem arises when privacy is given up involuntarily, or without one’s knowledge. At present, many people do not know how much of their data is being shifted around without their consent. When a commom driver’s license becomes a REAL ID-validated, RFID-chipped homing device, many will be completely unaware. Again, in some circumstances I or you might want such a device. But we cannot give up our right to know we are carrying it.
In all, I think “From Freedom to Fascism” is only a moderately successful film. Russo was clearly going for a Michael Moore-esque mix of humor and outrage, but the stock footage clips and cartoons he weaves in are awkward and disruptive. He also tries to put to much under the conspiratorial “Federal Reserve is taking over the world” theme. This overreach is a shame, since a lot of what he says is true, but by exaggerating the argument, he makes his message easy to dismiss. Another major flaw is some of the film’s sloppiness: senators’ names are spelled wrong (“Dianne Fienstein” and “John Corzine”) and a congressman is listed as a senator. There are other typos, too. It makes the product look shoddy.