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“Privacy” a catchall for larger concerns

Most of us will retain online anonymity, but still we must fight against encroachment. “Privacy” a catchall for larger concerns Most of us will retain online anonymity, but still we must fight against encroachment.

I’ve always had sympathy for those who live in the public eye, especially when ugly details of their personal lives hit the press, potentially marking that person forever in the history books. Nobody wants their lives stripped of context and reduced to one image or one headline. As private citizens, most of us will experience our highs and lows anonymously, and we can afford the luxury of taking our privacy for granted.

But perhaps the rise of the Internet has got us worried about Andy Warhol’s prediction that we’ll all actually get our 15 minutes of fame. Technology introduces the possibility that someone is watching us all the time — the FBI can potentially intercept our e-mail with Carnivore (now called DCS1000), or listen in on our cell-phone conversations. Marketers can glean ever more intimate details of our buying habits from online databases. Tivo knows our favorite TV shows, and Time Warner knows which digital movies we’ve ordered. Maybe we fear that one day we’ll all turn up on public Web pages, our friends and families alerted to our most shameful transgressions. Can you imagine? A variation on a virus that hijacks your e-mail address book would make that possible right now. Or maybe our public Web profiles will consist solely of what we’ve bought, as if someone had picked through our trash.

But this is not all we mean when we say we’re concerned about our online privacy. After all, most of us will never be targeted by the FBI or the NSA, or be reduced to financial ruin by an online hacker. The concern is bigger, and is rather poorly defined by the term “privacy.” It might be described more accurately by the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution, which promises, in part, “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.”

Even though we can’t predict to what extent technology will continue to change our daily lives, we can be sure of this: We’ve always had to fight off attacks on our constitutional protections. Achieving a balance between these protections and technological advances is what we really mean when we talk about online privacy.

For more on this issue, see:

“Ashcroft To Appoint Internet Privacy Aide–But No Czar”

“FBI takes the teeth out of Carnivore’s name”

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