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MSNBC
updated 12/8/2000 1:46:36 AM ET 2000-12-08T06:46:36

“Privacy is dead, deal with it,” Sun MicroSystems CEO Scott McNealy is widely reported to have declared some time ago. Privacy in the digital age may not be as dead and buried as McNealy believes, but it’s certainly on life support.

OUR UNBRIDLED LOVE affair with all things technological has an evil twin: a seemingly unstoppable encroachment on our personal privacy. The same streaming video technology that allows grandma and grandpa to chat with their grandchildren is being used to spy on employees in the workplace or capture unsuspecting lovers stealing a kiss.

The rise of e-commerce also enables marketers of all stripes to capture bits and pieces of our buying and Web surfing habits. Database technology enables those bits and pieces of your daily life - the matrix of your personal world - to be assembled and repackaged thousand of ways and sold to anyone wanting to target you for a quick sale… or an unwitting scam. These are the darker angels of the digital age.

“We know our privacy is under attack,” writes Simson Garfinkel in his excellent and severely under-appreciated book, “Database Nation.” “The problem is that we don’t know how to fight back.”

The truth is, fighting to protect privacy is a quixotic venture. Sure, there are any number of technologies, techniques and work-arounds you can employ, all in the effort to protect your privacy. But such a quest is like trying to dig a hole in middle of a fast flowing river. The rich and powerful gain some amount of privacy only because they can afford to grid their personal lives with a kind of digital body armor.

Garfinkel says we need to rethink privacy in the 21st Century. “It’s not about the man who wants to watch pornography in complete anonymity over the Internet. It’s about the woman who’s afraid to use the Internet to organize her community against a proposed toxic dump - afraid because the dump’s investors are sure to dig through her past if she becomes too much of a nuisance,” Garfinkel writes.

Poll after poll confirms that the American public relishes its privacy. The potential loss of privacy ranks as a major concern among an overwhelming majority of the citizenry.

If this is the case, why have you and I simply rolled over when it comes to protecting and demanding our privacy? Answer: convenience and savings.

In the decade before our toasters became smarter than the first personal computers, we became addicted to the “quick and easy.” The grocery stores were stocked with one-box meals. “Fast food” entered the American lexicon and the world forever changed. We not only want it now, we wanted it five minutes ago.

Technology fed on that “fast food” mentality and turned us all into speed freaks. Then the marketers and sellers of privacy learned to seduce us with discounts. All we had to do was give up a bit of personal information here or there and presto: 20 percent off. Those poor schmucks that held back on the principle of privacy were getting shafted!

Within the last year several of the grocery stores I frequent started issuing “bonus” cards. You enter your name, address, telephone number and you get a card that, no big surprise, has all that information encoded into its magnetic strip.

When I go to the checkout stand I’m promised a discount on certain purchases if I use my card. I’ve seen people save up to $50 using those bonus cards. The trade-off is that each time someone uses the bonus card the store registers all those purchases in its database. Over time that database will have an uncanny, precisely detailed chronicle of a shopper’s life. And here’s the rub: you don’t own that information, the store does. They can sell it, slice or dice it any way they want.

Are the savings worth it? Undoubtedly to some, the savings are vital. But don’t just assume you have to give up your information to get the discounts. As it turns out some heroic individual challenged one local grocery store about the data they collected on her purchases. After running up the food chain of the store’s executive branch, she eventually learned that cards can be issued that don’t tally her purchases and stuff them into a hidden database. But who knew?

The point here is that you and I need to push the envelope when it comes to protecting privacy if there is any hope of forestalling the swift erosion of our personal lives.

And we must also hold our government and those in authority over us accountable for protecting the information they are entitled to collect on us. It is a fight well worth the effort. But be forewarned: it can be an exhausting and frustrating task.

There are plenty of privacy organizations out there fighting on your behalf — you can easily find them online by searching for the words “privacy” and “advocacy.” (Or click on the links below.)

Amid the warp and woof of all these privacy horror stories — and flying well below the public’s radar - is the notion that there should be no privacy.

INTERACTIVE: E-mail Invasion
Author David Brin makes a compelling case against privacy in his unnerving book, “The Transparent Society.” Brin proffers that the more we attempt to protect privacy the more we are sure to lose it.

Regardless of how many technologies and techniques the public can conjure to protect privacy, there will always be governments and the rich and powerful that are more able and more willing to subvert those same technologies for their own ends to the ultimate detriment of ours.

Brin’s radical notion then is that we all give up our privacy, equally. All records are open, all work place practices exposed to sunlight. The same goes for government and law enforcement operations. If the police have video surveillance cameras keeping track of the public then the public has a right to place the same video cameras in the police squad rooms.

Among the crucial factors in Brin’s transparent world is accountability. Without equal accountability, the whole premise falls apart because, in the words of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Accountability makes us all equal in a transparent society, Brin argues. “For instance, if some company wishes to collect data on consumers across America, let them do so,” Brin writes in his book, but “only on the condition that the top one hundred officers in the firm must post exactly the same information about themselves and all their family members on an accessible Web site.”

Now, I don’t know about you but I’d be willing to trade my information for that kind of quid pro quo.

Of course I’m over-simplifying Brin’s arguments, which I’m not sure I totally buy into, but have to admit they are intriguing enough to make me twitchy about my personal privacy dogma.

“Transparency is not about eliminating privacy,” Brin stresses. For example, Brin doesn’t suggest that our bedrooms become open access fodder for voyeuristic accountability freaks. Transparency “is about giving us the power to hold accountable those who would violate [our privacy]. Privacy implies serenity at home and the right to be let alone,” Brin writes.

Surely there are many hurdles to jump along the way to such a transparent society and Brin doesn’t deny or dodge discussing them. He simply gives a compelling alternative to what I ultimately believe will become a privacy rebellion if the various forces at work in the digital age are left unconstrained, free to rape and pillage our personal information.

Wars are bloody and change people’s lives forever in ways that aren’t even imaginable. A full-on privacy rebellion won’t be pretty, it won’t be non-violent and people will get hurt.

Think about that the next time you blithely sign up for a grocery store “bonus” card, automatically hand out your telephone number or social security number or mumble the phrase, “what do I have to hide?”

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