Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Privacy in the Internet Age

This article in Sunday's Tribune caught my eye. A quote from Patrick Kampert's article:
Technology is proliferating, to the extent that nationally known private investigator Michael Rambam ( teaches seminars to law-enforcement groups and others called "Privacy Is Dead. Get Over It."
The article goes on to show how people can be traced by cell phone signals and how email is increasingly used in litigation (the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were recently amended to impose requirements on litigants regarding the maintenance and production of emails and text messages and other things that you may not think of as permanent... but which never, ever go away). And then there are the cameras -- security cameras, intersection cameras, police cameras.

Remember Allen Funt and Candid Camera? Smile -- you're on all the time now. (Well, not quite... but it's getting there.)

That discount card you flash at the grocery to get a price break on frozen peas and laundry detergent? Well, it tracks all your purchases. On one level, it helps the store know which items to stock... but on another... will your health insurer find out that you bought cigarettes six times last year and raise your premium? Will your employer learn about the booze you buy about once a month... and require you to attend a wellness program... or even alcohol counseling? And when they find out about the Twinkies on top of everything else....

The problem in all this is not so much that your personal information is out there -- the problem is who is doing what with it.

And it occurs to me that, in order to have privacy, one of two things must happen -- either you don't put your information out there (too late!) or the other guy doesn't look at it.

This latter kind is the privacy that the teenager understands. The teen closes the bedroom door and expects the parents to stay away. And, for the most part, we do... unless compelled to do otherwise. This mindset carries over into the Internet... which is why teenagers are astounded to be disciplined at school or rejected by an employer for posting Facebook pictures showing them drinking or in some other compromising pose: They don't expect anyone to look who's not supposed to.

Although such an attitude is unrealistic, and maybe dangerously so, maybe it shouldn't be: Even in the most crowded tenements in 19th Century America... or in the 20th Century Soviet Union... romances blossomed and babies were conceived. People chose to look the other way... to give the young people their privacy.

Well, now, in the 21st Century, we're all jammed into a cyber-tenement. We are crowded together in an electronic sense, with all our information showing. Maybe, to preserve privacy, we need to develop societal standards about when... and when not to... look.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

I heard about how we are filmed all of the time. East Germany used to be the country that did that.

The Beach Bum said...

Curmudgeon -

This is a subject that is near and dear to me. I know that my phone is tapped and that my emails are monitored by No Such Agency. They probably also monitor my Blog. I accept this because of my former association with the government.

I still dislike the fact that all of my transactions (Financial and otherwise) are being tracked by people other than the Federal Government.

Everything has a cost – including the information highway. In this case it is the cost of personal privacy. I use all the tools that are available to protect myself – yet I realize my vulnerability.

In a lighter vein my today’s blog is about Chicago! You may enjoy it.

PICARD - I have added you to my Blog Roll - I enjoy your blog!

The Beach Bum

sari said...

I always flash a big smile at the ATM.

Patti said...

It was more fun when Allen Funt was in charge of the camera. And when the Chief and Maxwell Smart used the Cone of Silence for privacy.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that we'll ever get back to the societal standards of the 19th-Century tenements, simply because computers have a long memory and data mining is so easy.

What we need to do instead is smack the daylights out of anyone who transgresses on our electronic privacy. The telecom-spying thing going on right now is one example of data being used inappropriately, as is the recent Facebook privacy problems and the occasional loss of a laptop containing confidential data.

Privacy in the more human sense may be dead, but I don't think we should get over it. If you don't already read it, let me point you to Threat Level ( which, aside from an odd fixation on Hans Reiser, does a good job of keeping tabs on electronic privacy. (And donate to the EFF--'s good for the soul, or the digital approximation thereof.)