Illusion of privacy

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I like living in a bubble, but that bubble is shrinking every day.

My private world is a comfortable illusion in this modern age.

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Before the Internet, it was possible to have an unlisted number and become a hermit, even in the middle of civilization. You didn’t have to move to Montana and grow your own soybeans to go “off the grid.”

This wired world has changed the rules. Your purchases are tracked. Your cell calls leave footprints, as does your Web surfing. Surveillance cameras show your car in traffic and your movements in public. Even satellites can pinpoint your house, your office and the fastest route between two points.

Your names are on mailing lists for consumer exploitation. They’re on public documents, no longer filed away in a courthouse basement but online for anyone to examine. Your e-mails, your forum posts, your blog entries have been archived forever somewhere.

Don’t be paranoid. The playing field is leveling. Everyone faces the same mountain of information being amassed about their private lives.

The privacy debate usually comes down to two big choices: all-in or completely opt-out. Neither seems likely or realistic.

All-in means that every single piece of information about you is fair game: tax records, Social Security number, bank balances, current and former addresses, medical history, mother’s maiden name, church membership, criminal records … the works. In such a society, identity theft would be nearly impossible, because all the info out there would clearly point to the one correct person on Earth.

And we’re certainly moving closer to that scenario each day. With enough persistence, money and the right private investigator, I can find out most of this information within a few days. And you could find out the same about me. Information is currency; having yours gives me an advantage.

You wouldn’t end up paying more for health insurance because those with pre-existing conditions would either be denied coverage or forced to pay more as part of their “fair share.” But it’s possible you might be one of those people, because your public medical record shows you have diabetes, or even a genetic predisposition to diabetes.

No one gets a free ride, but everyone pays at some point.

Opt-out means we build walls. We use the best secure encryption possible to lock away financial records, medical secrets, passwords, address, DVD rentals and charity donations. Without secure information, we can’t have a Witness Protection Program to keep informants hidden from murderous thugs. And we can’t hide battered spouses from their abusers.

But perfect encryption means criminals, from corporate swindlers to embedded terrorists, can almost never be detected. Even if law enforcement wanted to snoop, it couldn’t.

Only a small number of people are threats against society. The rest of us, as Douglas Adams would say, are “mostly harmless.” So how do we protect privacy for most without letting criminals run loose?

The right to privacy isn’t directly guaranteed in the Constitution. But the Ninth Amendment, which reserves citizens’ natural rights independent of government or law, has been used to establish just such a right to privacy. Certainly, activists have sounded the alarm about intrusions in previously private personal data, whether made by corporations or government agencies.

And many citizens care little about what they view as inconsequential data. They would just as soon allow their spending habits to be broadcast on Fox News as they would share their sexual peccadilloes on a MySpace blog (also owned by Fox).

In the end, privacy is too important to be entrusted to the powers that be. Only the people can decide for themselves how personal is too personal. If only individuals could choose exactly what can be shared and what can be hidden, the right to privacy would be totally secure.

The bubble burst long ago. We’re all open targets in the information revolution, whether we band together or stand apart.

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