Do We Have Any Privacy?

The notion of privacy has received much attention recently. I’m still waiting for someone to draw a reasonable line about how far to go in collecting information on the world’s population.

The new handringing about privacy began when Edward Snowden, the contractor working for the National Security Agency, leaked classified documents to the press about the NSA’s activities.

He entertained us as he fled to Hong Kong, tried to get to Bolivia and finally settled for Russia. Poor guy. And he thinks the U. S. is bad.

His present life has some compensations. Apparently his girlfriend visits him in exile. He has been lauded with a whistleblower prize, a person-of-the-year designation, a teleconferenced speech at the South by Southwest tech conference in Austin, Texas, and films about his activities.

I have mixed feelings about Snowden and his revelations. Mostly I sympathized with the young man’s parents, who raised a smart son with a frustrating tendency to bring trouble on himself—starting with dropping out of both high school and college. I could imagine them saying, “Oh, no, Eddie. What have you done now?”

The privacy conversation continued with the juicy revelation that we were tapping Angela Merkel’s phone. I always assumed the Germans were tapping Obama’s or maybe Kerry’s phone too.

I’ll admit I’m mostly ignorant about spying. My information comes from spy novels. If you like them too, and you haven’t tried the works of Joseph Kanon and Alan Furst, in addition to old favorites like John Le Carre, you’re in for a treat. So I have always assumed everyone is spying on everyone else. It’s sort of like the doctrine of mutual assured destruction with the atom bomb. If both sides have it, no one goes too far.

But if I know little about spying, I do know about privacy. It’s not the government I’m afraid of. The government has journalists scrutinizing every move. I’m afraid of private entities, unregulated, unobserved and operating with proprietary tactics. For most people it is irrelevant what NSA does. Electronics have already blown your cover.

It’s Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter. It’s the iPhone that knows your location, helpfully (and creepily) displaying the correct time in your new time zone as you step off a plane. Your laptop follows you, showing your location when you go onto Google Maps and tracking your website visits and purchases. I once called Comcast about a problem, and they knew the television program I had been watching.

When you are out and about, it’s not the NSA, it’s all electronics that record your every movement. Cameras watch people in stores, hospitals and at intersections. Other cameras take photos of license plates as cars go through toll booths. Charlie cards record the time we tap through the fare gate. Library cards confirm the books we check out. The airlines know about your vacation plans. Your Visa card reveals a lot about how much money you have to spend.

Then there are the websites devoted only to digging up your dirt. I tried one—

It was unnerving. InstantCheckmate charged me $22.86 for one-month access to its data, which it apparently collects from all sorts of websites. It knew my name, age, address and phone numbers. Moreover, it knew all about my husband and our daughters, including their married names and home addresses. I have Facebook and Linked-in accounts, but neither of those pages has much information on them. How did they accumulate so much information about me?

The site promised to show any lawsuits in which I was involved as well as any court appearances I have made or arrests I have had, although some information required more payment. I decided I didn’t get paid enough for this column to spend more money on this website, especially since I knew I had never been arrested. I didn’t look anyone else up. I’m just not that curious about any secrets my friends might want to keep from the world.

I’m certain this is only one website of many providing accurate information that might be none of your business.

I can see how such sites as this are useful. If you don’t trust your daughter’s boyfriend, you can see if there is good reason for your suspicion. If you are hiring people, you’ve got a tool to learn about secrets they do not reveal on their Facebook page. The site asks you to agree not to use the information for hiring and several other purposes, but they don’t care if you do.

I’ve known people, however, for whom such sites could be devastating. A friend suffered from a stalker. Another friend had a sticky divorce, and she did not want her ex-husband to know anything about her life without him. Electronic information could bring danger to such people as this.

I hope we can settle on boundaries for the NSA. At the same time, I hope we can make private companies do their part in keeping our information private.

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