04 Sep 2010

Privacy and IP (Intellectual Property)

All Posts 12 Comments

In the “office hours” for my online class on private law & defense today, one of the students asked, “What if there were a satellite that could record everything that happened inside people’s houses?” His question was, what recourse (if any) would the homeowners have legally? Could they sue the company that owned the satellite?

I had to confess that I wasn’t sure. Some cases of “invasion of privacy” would be easy to handle. For example, if they developed x-ray goggles that allowed people to look at others naked, then shopping malls, apartment complexes, etc. could just say, “If you come onto our property, you agree not to wear x-ray goggles.”

But I’m not so sure about satellites in space, especially if they work “passively” just by examining the light waves that naturally emanate from the house.

What does Stephan Kinsella say about all this? Come to think of it, why does he oppose the government body-scanners at airports? Do we own the arrangement of pixels on a screen that looks like the profile of our bodies?

12 Responses to “Privacy and IP (Intellectual Property)”

  1. Martin says:

    Mr. Murphy, correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t this problem simply related to the problem of assigning property rights in space or in the air? The answer should be very similar to a plane flying over a certain property. The problem is not that there is a satelite in space doing that. The problem, in my opinion, is that there are no property rights over the three-dimensional space in which the satelite moves. That makes that kind of behaviour unpriceable and therefore uncontrollable. It seems to me that as long as something can be brought into a system of property rights it can be identified and controlled through voluntary action.

    • scineram says:

      Of course there are property rights in the space the satelite uses! It belongs to the satelite owner.

  2. Josh Gonzales says:

    Of course property rights would apply in space, and present scenario aside (for the moment) as private companies wished to launch satellites we would see exactly how they free market would handle the homesteading of orbit space.

    Whats interesting about the scenario posed by Bob in the post is that it really has two possibilities.

    (1) Like Google Maps (or Earth) there are images that are created by passive means. Meaning that light (energy) leave the sun bounces of the surface of the earth and everything on it, and allows us to see, as well as take pictures.

    (2) But what the student in the class seems to be describing is a form of “active” imaging. This is analogous to an x-ray. We can’t see bones in our body under normal conditions, but if we shoot more powerful energy at our bodies we can image our bones.

    It seems that to peer into a building (with a roof) the satellite and its agents would need to employ means described in the second point. There may be some recourse in this respect, especially sense such means may be easily shown to be damaging to the health of those being imaged.

  3. y says:

    I don’t know about the satellite thing, but I think Mr. Kinsella and others oppose the government scanners because everyone is forced to go through that type of security. A private air line company cannot have their own type of security process. I suppose Kinsella would say that those types of scanners would be acceptable from a libertarian point of view if air travelers voluntarily subjected themselves to such humiliation from privately owned air line companies, and have the option of choosing other airline companies which use different types of security procedures.

  4. Ash says:

    I think the issue could be brought down to earth, as it were, by considering the following scenario: Is one party, from their own property, allowed to look at another’s property through any means necessary? For example, was James Stewart (or Bart Simpson) violating property rights when spying into the neighbour’s house? I say no, and I think the same principle applies to this satellite scenario.

    As for the body scanners: while I can’t speak for Kinsella, aside from the radiation, the fact that people’s private parts are easily distinguishable, and don’t seem to work very well anyway, I think the libertarian case against them is that the government airport security monopoly TSA is “forcing” (or intending to eventually force) an invasion of property on passengers.

  5. Jim D says:

    OK, so the person or satellite with a camera capturing reflected light rays is one thing, but I’m wondering about the rights of the person being photographed by the more invasive means. The roof on your house and the clothing on your bod are both a pre-existing denial of permission to photograph those places.
    OTOH, maybe I’ve already “gone around the bend”; but I’ve contemplated painting a large gospel message on the carport roof. Or I could go secular: “The unexamined life is not worth living…spy on yourself, loser”.

  6. Sieben says:

    People have homesteaded the right to privacy in their homes…

    • KP says:

      How can you homestead privacy? Its just a condition.

  7. Silas Barta says:

    I’d actually been thinking about this a while ago. Here are my thoughts:

    What the questioner is describing is (taking the hardest case) where a satellite passively reads the portion of the EM spectrum that would allow you to see (infer) what is going on inside a house as if you were there. That is, normal housing exteriors are opaque to visible light (so you can’t see through walls / curtains / blinds with the naked eye), but if you could detect another portion of the EM spectrum the walls wouldn’t do any good for purposes of privacy.

    The long-established common law principle is, “The eye cannot commit trespass.” So, if you want someone to be unable to see it, the burden is on you to make it not visible to eyes (from any place they have a right to be). This nicely generalizes, in a more technologically advanced age, to “Detection of EM radiation in the visible light band [~400-700 nm] is not trespass.” Which would make the satellite trespassing.

    OTOH, if it were simple enough for people to start lining their private areas with a material that smears out the internal EM emissions that are useful for making out humans, courts could rule that the burden falls on landowners to implement this wherever they want to keep it private.

    • Bryan Rosander says:

      I think that your principles are right but have the wrong conclusion.
      Just as the eye cannot trespass, so the satellite cannot trespass. We don’t need to specify an EM spectrum which is illegal for viewing private property.

      Similarly, we can shield our houses from that satellite spectrum the same way that we can shield them from the visual spectrum.

  8. Hit Girl says:

    I would blow that POS satellite out of the sky with a bazooka, and then send my PDA to slaughter all who dear tread on me with with their EM spectrums.

  9. Art says:

    “What does Stephan Kinsella say about all this? Come to think of it, why does he oppose the government body-scanners at airports? Do we own the arrangement of pixels on a screen that looks like the profile of our bodies?”

    No, we own the right not to step inside the range of the body scanner.