Measuring Privacy

Edward Snowden’s revelations about the scope of government surveillance made me think about how we can quantify privacy between each other and our government.  Here statistical economics can provide the framework needed to do so, through the use of measuring the index of probability of human action, and specifying that government knowledge of an individual cannot be less than some minimum index, without the use of a warrant to obtain specific information delineated in the warrant.

First, we need to define the space in which an individual acts. We occupy physical space, therefore position, time and velocity are measureable attributes. We purchase goods and items, thus our consumption patterns are measurable. We earn incomes from countable sources, a measurable quantity. We interact with each other online, face-to-face, and telephony. Here the quantity of information that an individual transmits and receives can be measured using information theory. The information entropy, H, of this paragraph prior to this sentence is 2.9325. Every communication that we transmit or receive can be measured and aggregated as such.  Each of these measurable attributes and many many more describe our action within a society.  As we develop new technologies or innovate new things, our understanding of what things we can do changes too.

The previous paragraph represents a set of intensive parameters that define our lives. Knowledge of those can be shared with other people. We do so knowingly through interpersonal relationships and through business relationships (which are just an extension of interpersonal relationships.)  Here we disclose some measure of information of our lives to receive some benefit, be it companionship, financial gain, or some other such intangible value only known to ourselves.  We exchange personal information to benefit ourselves, here even ideas are personal information.  However, our relationship with government is different because of  government’s ability for coercion.

In the United States, We specified a level of privacy in our Bill of Rights. It would be a massive research project to go back through our history and quantify through legislation and court decisions the level of information the government is allowed to possess about its citizens.  In theory, this is measurable and some approximation of this knowledge would be largely beneficial in our current discussion of what is an acceptable level of government knowledge of its citizens.

Our Constitution and common law specify what are acceptable levels of knowledge of the citizenry. I think the Constitution provides some minimum entropy allowed to the citizens.  This is a political equivalent to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which states there is a maximum knowledge to which we can have about individual particles.  Here the Constitution states that, citizens are guaranteed a minimum level of action free from the government’s knowledge.  This applies to all levels of government within our country.  Without such knowledge, government can only influence an individuals actions to a limited extent.  There is an axiom in science that we can only control that which we understand.  This can be weakened to we can only control things in degree to the extent at which we understand them.  This is why the privacy debate is so important extending to not only the NSA, but also the IRS, FBI, State, and local agencies.  I understand that especially over the last century we have given up a significant amount of our privacy.

One response

  1. Pingback: Liberty as a Consequence of Human Action « Statistical Economics

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