Someone's Watching

If consumers are annoyed with a merchant's monitoring, they can buy elsewhere. With the intrusive state, there is nowhere to go. Read excerpt below...

Privacy encompasses the real and virtual spaces where you can think your most heretical thoughts without the fear of social and political consequences and where you can seal the bonds of love and friendship. In Privacy, Garret Keizer grapples with the meaning and importance of maintaining places where we are left alone to think what we will, love whom we must, and bear the indignities of life's pratfalls.

But Keizer, a Harper's Magazine contributing editor, turns out to be a curmudgeonly and somewhat uncertain guide to the threats to privacy posed by the modern world—and he is no guide at all to practical proposals for countering those dangers. There are two chief sources of danger to our privacy: commerce (snooping by businesses eager to send targeted advertisements and spam through Web browsers and email) and government, with its myriad and burgeoning forms of surveillance and data-gathering.

With regard to modern commerce, Keizer grumps: "We would do well to ask if the capitalist economy and its obsessions with smart marketing and technological innovation cannot become as intrusive as any authoritarian state." Actually, no. If consumers become sufficiently annoyed with mercantile snooping and excessive marketing, they can take their business to competitors who are more respectful of privacy. Not so with the citizens of an intrusive state.

"If privacy is the right to be let alone, then technology is our ever-expanding ability to let nothing alone," Keizer writes. It is true that commercial enterprises now collect vast amounts of information concerning the activities, spending habits, and tastes of their customers. Most of the time the data are used to figure out how to sell something. Like millions of Americans, I carry "club" cards for grocery stores and pharmacies that tell the retailers what I buy, information I willingly surrender in exchange for discounts and coupons. I don't feel the need to guard my preference for a particular brand of soap from a retailer's prying eyes. Nearly all vendors make available their privacy policies, and if you don't like them, you can go elsewhere.

Other transactions and communications, of course, have greater significance. Political and religious dissidents, and even viewers of online pornography, will likely be more concerned about shielding their interests from scrutiny. While Keizer is certainly right that technology can enable the invasion of privacy, he doesn't acknowledge that technology can also guard it. Seekers of online privacy, for example, can take advantage of free anonymizing services like TOR, which masks the identities of computers connected to the Internet, and Cryptocat, which encrypts online chat sessions. "The central question is whether we hold privacy sacred enough to endure the inconveniences necessary to preserve it," Keizer says. That hundreds of thousands of people use TOR every day is evidence that many are already willing to endure inconveniences to preserve their privacy. And more tech-enabled privacy tools are on the way. That's all to the good, since the chief privacy problem is coming from the government.

In his 2009 book, American Privacy, Frederick S. Lane asserts: "At its core, the history of America is the history of the right to privacy." After all, what is the Fourth Amendment's guarantee—"the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated"—if not substantially a guarantee of the right to privacy?

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