Monday, April 27, 2009

Why Privacy Advocates Should Act Environmentally NOW

When I act environmentally, my concern is usually the welfare of people and animals. For example, I avoid wasting electricity because the electricity in my city is produced by burning coal, and the emissions from the power plant cause respiratory problems for vulnerable residents. Another example is collecting discarded plastic bags that may otherwise be ingested by animals living in the ocean.

However, another motivation is wishing to stave off the draconian government measures that will some day have to be implemented if people don't voluntarily act more environmentally. We are fast approaching a point at which national governments will enact laws to force citizens to pollute less, and I'm concerned with the form those laws will take.

One option already being discussed is the introduction of a carbon tax. There is also the potential for a plastic tax, pesticide tax, and so forth. Although these taxes have much to recommend them, they would have a disproportionate impact on poorer people. Think, for example, of the impact on a tax on electricity. For a poor family, this could mean being unable to use heating or air conditioning even in extreme weather. Meanwhile, a wealthy person like Al Gore could continue to air condition his mansion despite the tax. This clearly would not be fair.

A more just approach to stopping pollution would be rationing. Each person would have the right to cause a certain amount of carbon-equivalent pollution and could buy a certain quantity of plastic and pesticide per year. Rationing would affect everyone equally, regardless of income level.

If rationing was done through paper ration coupons, as was the case in the past, I would support it 100%. Unfortunately, it's extremely unlikely that paper coupons would be used, at least in industrialized countries. Instead, electronic cards similar to debit cards would be used. Such cards are already used for the United States' food stamps program and other government programs.

The implications for privacy are staggering. If there is a carbon tax, it will apply to every item transported by a gasoline-powered vehicle. (Items transported by electric vehicles will also be affected if the source of electricity is coal or natural gas.) The ration card will therefore be used for almost every purchase a person makes, from food to books to furnishings. Even with privacy measures in place, it is likely that, sooner or later, a subpoena or hacker will cause a person's expenditures to become public knowledge. Think back to Monica Lewinsky's book purchases, which became public knowledge because she paid with a credit card. If every purchase involves swiping a ration card, we could all find our reading lists made public.

I find this prospect very disturbing. Most of us will, at one time or another, purchase something we don't want the world to know about. It may be something indicative of a medical problem, like a package of adult diapers or a book on dealing with the aftereffects of prostate surgery. It may be something indicative of our religious beliefs, which we feel the need to keep from family members or employers. It may simply be something we're irrationally embarrassed to have "normal" people know we buy, such as a DVD of a TV show we're supposed to be too sophisticated to enjoy.

Rationing would address the pollution caused by products' manufacture and shipping to the point of sale, but would not address the problems caused by products being dumped illegally when they are no longer wanted. To deter illegal dumping, it's possible that many products will one day be sold with RFID chips embedded in them. This would be very effective at stopping the practice of people dumping fishing nets, refrigerators, mattresses, and other large items. Unfortunately, RFID chips, like electronic ration cards, would have serious privacy implications.

I want to preserve my right to buy and use products anonymously, and I want to see poor people able to afford necessities like heating. My faint hope is that if a critical mass of people voluntarily practice rationing of gasoline, electricity, plastic, pesticides, water, et cetera, we can stave off the introduction of laws that will either erode our privacy or impose undue hardship on the poor. Voluntarily adhering to environmental standards today is much more palatable to me than waiting for national governments to enact draconian environmental protection laws.

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