frgavin on June 2nd, 2010


In the post-privacy era, we all know too much about one another.

This column is about privacy, a common enough topic but one to which I don’t think we’re paying enough attention. As a culture we may be losing it at a greater clip than we’re noticing, and that loss will have implications both political and, I think, spiritual. People don’t like it when they can’t keep their own information, or their sense of dignified apartness. They feel violated when it’s taken from them. This adds to the general fraying of things.

Privacy in America didn’t fall like the Berlin Wall, with a cloud of cement dust and cheers. It didn’t happen over a few days but a few decades, and it didn’t fall exactly, but is falling. If you’re not worried about that, or not feeling some nostalgia for the older, more contained and more private America, then you’re just not paying attention.

We are all regularly warned about the primary threat of identity theft, in which technologically adept criminals break into databases to find and use your private financial information. But other things, not as threatening, leave many of us uneasy. When there is a terrorist incident or a big crime, we are inundated on TV with all the videotape from all the surveillance cameras. “We think that’s the terrorist there, taking off his red shirt.” There are cameras all over. No terrorist can escape them, but none of the rest of us can either. If you call 911, your breathless plea for help may be on tonight’s evening news, even though a panicked call to the police is a pretty intimate thing.

Do you want anyone who can get your address on the Internet to be able to call up a photo of your house? If you don’t, that’s unfortunate, because it’s all there on Google Street View, like it or not. Facebook has apparently taken to changing its default settings so that your information – the personal news you thought you were sharing only with friends – is available to strangers and mined for commercial data. And young people will say anything on networking sites because they’re young, because no one has taught them not to, because they’re being raised in a culture that has grown more exhibitionistic.

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