An Open Letter to Scott McNealy

Dear Mr. McNealy,

We’ve never met, but I was fascinated to read your tech overlord’s take on the NSA leaks:

In 1999, Scott McNealy, the chief executive of Sun Microsystems, summed up the valley’s attitude toward personal data in what became a defining comment of the dot-com boom. “You have zero privacy,” he said. “Get over it.”

MusÈe Bonnat - PsychÈ et l'Amour endormi - Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1636)

Mr. McNealy is not retracting that comment, not quite; but like Mr. Metcalfe he is more worried about potential government abuse than he used to be. “Should you be afraid if AT&T has your data? Google?” he asked. “They’re private entities. AT&T can’t hurt me. Jerry Brown and Barack Obama can.” An outspoken critic of the California state government, and Mr. Brown, the governor, Mr. McNealy said his taxes are audited every year.

Really?  Well, probably:  AT&T or Google probably can’t do much to you.  But they can do a lot to the rest of us, not least in the framing of information — about politics, say — based on data gleaned from our internet habits.  They can or not serve given ads to us — including political speech — and so on.  And there is in essence no way, nothing even as seemingly rubber-stamp-ish as the FISA court, available to  any individual harmed by such behavior, even in the unlikely event one would be able to detect it.

The problem, as the article in which you were quoted  describes, is that creating a no-privacy regime on the internet served Silicon Valley capital well.  But it was supposed to be no secrets for me but plenty for thee, and it seems to shock you that you too, might be subject to review.  But hell, Scott — if you’ve done nothing wrong with your finances, you’ve got nothing to fear from an audit, right?

The bathos is rich with this one, in other words — but, amazingly, your argument gets worse as your quote goes on:

But arguing that computer makers have some role in creating a surveillance state, he said, “is like blaming gun manufacturers for violence, or a car manufacturer for drunk driving.”

The problem, Scott, is that gun manufacturers do bear significant responsibility for gun violence, given that the NRA, the leading enabler of unrestricted gun use in this country is essentially the gun maker’s lobbying arm, not to mention their marketing habits.

The auto line is a nice dodge, by the way.  Guns and Google, used as designed and within the law, put people or their privacy at risk.  Cars, used as designed, within the law, pose real risks that are deterred and/or insured against in various ways.  If there are defects in design, then yeah, the auto companies are responsible (Exploding Pintos, anyone?)  Drunk driving is not such a use, and throwing that up there conveniently shifts the argument away from what private industry has done with our privacy to their profit.

But the telling moment for me, Mr. McNealy came with your last quoted remark:

The real problem, he said, is: “The scope creep of the government. I think it’s great they’re looking for the next terrorist. Then I wonder if they’re going to arrest me, or snoop on me.”

Everything the government does is fine…until it may in some way impinge on the perfect life of one Scott McNealy.

I’m not saying that there’s no problem with the expansion of the security state.  I think there is, a big one, and I think it’s been building for a long time (at least 65 years, if not more), and I think it’s gotten much more acute since 9/11.  I do think that Obama has brought the security state much more in line with the forms of law than his predecessor — but I also don’t have much faith in such legal frameworks when they are themselves secret.

But I also think that a bunch of DFHs have been saying for a long time that the internet will not set us free, that, instead, absent real privacy protections it would become too easy to turn it into the most effective tool for state surveillance of its citizens ever imagined (insert “panopticon,” “Big Brother” or “digital Stasi” here, as you please).  You’ve been the poster child, or at least the most pithy slogan-maker for those who told us all to shove such concerns where the sun never shines.

In any event, Scott, wonder no more.  Yup, they are going to snoop on you.  They almost certainly already have.  Just like the rest of us.

Sucks to be in with the plebes, doesn’t it.

Yours,

Tom Levenson

(PS:  I’ll withdraw this snark and bile if and only if you do something meaningful to ensure your own and everyone else’s digital privacy.)

Image: Peter Paul Rubens, Psyche spying on sleeping Cupid, c. 1636.

Explore posts in the same categories: Glibertarians, quis custodiet ipsos custodes

Tags: , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

One Comment on “An Open Letter to Scott McNealy”

  1. Anders Ehrnberg Says:

    Your data will always be at risk if you use precompiled programs and connect your computer to the net.
    It´s well known among hackers since at least 1984 that you can´t be safe from malicious “back doors” if you don´t code your own compiler in machine code and only uses programs you compiled yourself from source code you fully understand . See http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?TheKenThompsonHack
    You can´t blame McNealy for this, it´s in the nature of computing.
    Anders Eg


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: