Libertarians and the Privacy of Friends
By Claire Wolfe
Exclusive to The Libertarian Enterprise
A decade ago, I was stalked by a man who threatened to kill me.
When I realized no amount of cajoling, reasoning, legal action or
avoidance would end his obsession, I left town and left the state,
telling just three close friends where I was headed.
The All-Purpose Protecting Other People's Privacy List:
All three were sworn to secrecy. All three understood what I
faced. All three knew my stalker was notorious for using subterfuges
to get information. Yet eventually, two of them, quite casually, gave
my address and phone number to the first people who asked for it.
"Oh, but she said it was urgent to get in touch with you."
"Oh, but he was an old client of yours."
Nobody asked me first. As it turned out, none of the three
revealed my whereabouts to the stalker, either. But by then it was a
I had already revealed my own location, entirely by accident.
It was one of those simple, unthinking things. I left a change of
address form with the post office. Confidential, right? But my
former state's Libertarian Party affiliate sent a third-class mailing
with "address correction requested." The post office gave them my new
address. My stalker had access to the party's mailing list.
I moved again.
My stalker is long gone. Nevertheless, the experience has stayed
with me, leaving me cautious and wary. I was amazed to learn how easy
it is to blow apart my own privacy, or have it blown, in all
innocence, by careless friends.
Since then, I've also taken steps not only to guard information
about my physical location, but about every sort of personal
information. My informal motto has become, "Be paranoid. It's good
Nevertheless, my privacy is occasionally violated from unexpected
quarters. I see the same thing happening to others, as well.
Some cases in point:
Recently, I received a phone call from someone I'd never met. I
was actually delighted to hear from him, since he was someone whose
work I'd long admired. But I was puzzled as to how he had come by my
unlisted telephone number. "I got it from X."
But how had X gotten it? From Y. And how had Y gotten it? From
Z. And how had Z gotten it? From A -- who had in turn gotten it from
me with instructions to share it with no one. None of these people
intend me the slightest harm. Quite the contrary. But I'm surprised
that not one of them stopped and asked, "Should I give out this
The second case occurred just this morning -- and has much more
ominous overtones. A friend -- who very carefully did not violate
my privacy -- forwarded an e-mail he had received from a rather
emotional stranger. The stranger was trying to locate my snail
address, e-mail address or phone number. He had done a net search on
me, and listed the things he had been able to learn in half an hour.
He was steaming with frustration that he had found no contact
information. My temperature rose over something he had been able
to find -- my weekend travel plans! Someone else had evidently posted
them to a public e-mail list and there they were, revealed by a simple
session with an internet search engine.
Something similar recently happened to a prominent LP activist.
He asked a supporter to make hotel reservations for him and, for
whatever reason, the supporter posted the reservation to a public
list, complete with dates, hotel name and confirmation number. The
activist was not a subscriber to this list, so he wasn't aware this
very private information had gone public. Anyone with access to the
list could have used that information to stalk the activist, record
his movements or even pretend to be him.
Again, in both these cases, no actual harm was done. The stranger
found my travel plans only after I'd returned home. A list
subscriber got a message to the activist's wife. The activist stayed
But the potential for harm was considerable. Sadly, both
violations were committed by libertarians.
Do I know of anyone who wants to harm me or the activist? No.
Can we ever be confident someone does not want to harm us? No
again. And double ditto given the fact of our outspoken advocacy of
resistance to unjust government power.
I expect libertarians, of all people, to know better than to
violate others' privacy. But it ain't necessarily so.
And as you can see by the example at the top of this story,
sometimes the most stringent warnings carry no weight. People forget.
It isn't their life that might be in danger. It isn't their personal
security at risk. The person asking them for the information "seems
okay." ("You couldn't have possibly have meant I shouldn't tell good
old Joe!") They don't have enough at stake to inspire them to take
someone else's privacy seriously.
Alas, after bitching about the sins of others, I must confess that
I, too, have sometimes violated others' privacy. For instance, I once
published a person's address without asking his permission. Because
this person had posted his address to various Fidonet echoes in the
past, I felt reasonably secure using the information, and when there
was no time to ask, I just did it. Fortunately, when I later met the
person at a gathering, his only complaint was that I hadn't included
his new e-mail address and web page.
Nevertheless, I apologized to him. I made the wrong choice. I
will always, in the future, take the most prudent course and not
risk revealing personal information. Because, next time, an apology
may come too late.
I don't merely want to bitch and confess. I also want to thank
the many people who have cherished and helped guard their friends'
privacy -- all the people who've checked before giving out information
about others, or who have used their own judgment to turn aside
inquiries from people who "just didn't seem right." Within the very
ranks of this publication, there are several such wonderful human
beings. They are precious friends to have, and they will be precious
allies when the fight for freedom escalates.
The world can be a dangerous place for anybody. But as the world
becomes an even more dangerous place for political dissidents, we
need, more than ever, to have good, careful friends on our side.
With that in mind (and because I slip, too) I've created, with
Charles Curley's help, a 10-point list for my own reference. Maybe
someone else will find this list helpful, too. Maybe someone will add
to it, because the lesson of my experience says I can't think of
1. Never, never, ever give out anyone's phone number or snail address
without first checking with the person. Don't even think about it.
Just make it a routine.
2. Use discretion when giving out anyone's e-mail address. Even
though e-mail addresses tend to be more widely distributed and less
confidential than street addresses, they can still be misused. When
in doubt, ask.
3. Remember that some e-mail addresses point to people's physical
locations. Workplace domains, like those of Hewlett-Packard or
Microsoft, can lead strangers practically to a person's office. So
can college and university (.edu) domains. Don't give these out
without express permission.
4. When sending electronic mailings to a list of people, send the
message to yourself and bcc (blind copy) everyone else, unless all the
people you're sending to know each other, or unless you can personally
vouch for the good character of them all. Using this method, no one's
address but yours appears on the message.
5. Never, never, ever post any form of personal information about
someone to a public e-mail list or Usenet group. No matter how small
and intimate we may think some of these discussion groups are, we
have no way of knowing who might be lurking, or for what purpose.
All Usenet groups and many e-mail lists are archived. Information
that may appear harmless now may not be so harmless in five or ten
6. If you store personal information about friends or political
acquaintances anywhere on your computer, encrypt it.
7. Be aware of what's on your screen when others are present or when
you leave the room. Have a quick way of blanking the screen or
closing out a program. When in low-tech mode, make sure never to
leave envelopes, address books, etc. where others can see them.
8. Occasionally, someone might want to snail mail something to an
acquaintance of yours. In that case, you could offer to forward the
missive. Tell the person making the request to give you the message
in a stamped, open envelope. Address the envelope and insert a note
telling the recipient how you came to be sending the package. The
recipient can decide whether to respond.
9. Beware the "innocent" questions of strangers! Headhunters, feds,
detectives and other snoops routinely begin with "harmless" questions
when tracking down information.
10. Make sure any organizations in which you are involved --
especially libertarian ones! -- adopt similar practices.
And when you run into a situation not covered by this list,
remember: Be paranoid. It's good for you. And it's good for your
friends, as well.
Claire Wolfe is the author of 101 Things to Do 'Til the Revolution
(Loompanics Unlimited, 1996). Her next book, I Am Not a Number!,
dealing with resistance to the national ID card and related federal
databases, will be released in early 1998. Claire's e-mail address at
the top of this article was provided with her express permission.