Can Your Computer be like Your Priest?

Courts have a special power over us to compel testimony and force us to hand over evidence.  Through various methods, ranging from warrants and subpoenae to the “discovery” of civil cases, the court can demand evidence about you that is against your interests, and they can seize it by force if necessary.  In many cases, it would not be possible to convict or prevail without this power.

 

At the same time, we are wary of this power.  People have a presumption of innocence, and these actions are a major invasion if done against the innocent.  Most free nations don’t force people to testify against themselves or their immediate family, but all will allow your possessions to be used as evidence against you.

 

Courts have a special power over us to compel testimony and force us to hand over evidence.  Through various methods, ranging from warrants and subpoenae to the “discovery” of civil cases, the court can demand evidence about you that is against your interests, and they can seize it by force if necessary.  In many cases, it would not be possible to convict or prevail without this power.

At the same time, we are wary of this power.  People have a presumption of innocence, and these actions are a major invasion if done against the innocent.  Most free nations don’t force people to testify against themselves or their immediate family, but all will allow your possessions to be used as evidence against you.

In spite of this, the law has, for many centuries, recognized the concept of “privilege” for a certain special set of professions, including lawyers, priests and doctors.  You can confess a crime to your priest or doctor, and they can’t be compelled to say anything about it  — or about anything else that went on in private session.  Their own codes of operation also forbid disclosing secrets learned in these contexts.

For most, the reason for this exception is obvious, particularly when it comes to lawyers.  If you fear you can’t tell your lawyer everything, you won’t; and as a result, you won’t get adequate representation in court.  If you can’t tell your doctor everything, your health will suffer.  If you can’t tell your priest everything, some religions hold that your soul will suffer.

Today, we have a new recipient for all our “confessions”  — our computers. For many of us, the course of our lives now fully requires that computers intermediate most of what we do.  Unlike our old possessions, computers can and often do record or log everything we do with them in one form or another.  Considering all our computer technologies, ranging from phones to televisions to cars, a lot of our lives are now logged.

Unlike your doctor or priest, your computer can be forced to betray you. Get into a court case and the prosecutor, or your ex-husband’s divorce lawyer, can often call upon it to give up the goods on you.  And, unless you take rather special precautions, it will sing like a stool pigeon.

People who worry about this already take steps to prevent it.  They have some discussions only by voice or in person, rather than by email.  They purge old email logs even though they might be useful. In the pre-computer era, people used to shred documents after a while, but self protection wasn’t the only motivation for that.  The documents filled warehouses and were extremely difficult to search, giving them a negative value.

Your filing cabinet might betray you, but you generally took care in what you filed. Your computer files everything by default.  It’s a whole new world.

Prosecutors will say this is great because they can convict more criminals. And they can.  But in a free society, we don’t give the law every power it might want to fight crime — not when these powers can affect the innocent and even the presumed innocent.  We try to achieve a balance.  Soon, if not already, we won’t be able to conduct our lives without our computers. If we’re afraid our computers will betray us, we won’t be able to use them fully.  The harm incurred by that loss must be balanced against the benefits of catching more crooks.  We’re going to use our computers a lot more than we use our doctors, lawyers and priests.

It might be argued, in fact, that we already use our computers a great deal more.  And in dealing with lawyers, doctors and priests, there is a real conversation with a human being and we’re typically fully alert about what we say — and of the risks of saying it. With computers, we are usually casual.  They are like intimate family.  Not too far in the future, they will be implanted in our bodies.  For some, such as deaf people with cochlear implants, computers are already connected to their brains.  If you can’t trust the computer implanted in your skull, who can you trust?  Thanks to this familiarity, the criminals among us seem happy to let their computers record as they commit their crimes. Often, they are just not thinking about it.  Thus, we might feel that while the confessional becomes almost valueless without clerical privilege, the computer is only modestly diminished.

But it is diminished.  Therefor, it seems that some level of privilege should be granted to us and our interactions with our most trusted technologies.   Law enforcement did its job, and did it well for centuries without computers, phone logs, and email archives.  It may find value in a mild expansion of its powers in the modern world, but it’s hard to argue that it needs the vast expansion that unlimited access to our intimate computers would provide.

Can we trust our computer like we trust our priest?  Perhaps we never can… entirely. But precedent teaches us that some degree of privilege is going to be necessary as we become more closely entangled with our machines.

See Also

Self Tracking: the Quantified Life is Worth Living

Your Personal Memory Device: You Could Have One Today

Review: Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman!

 

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