Saying goodbye to privacy

“Grandpa, what’s ‘privacy’?”

“Well, little Andy,
back when I was a boy, people weren’t allowed to read your mail,
monitor your computer, see what you’ve Googled, tape your telephone,
copy your medical and bank records, take your photo without your
permission or sneak into your house.”

“Couldn’t sneak into your house! How was the government supposed to know what you were up to?”

“That’s the point. Privacy is the right to be left alone _ especially by the government.”

“Dad’s right. You really are getting senile.”

Forgive me for rehearsing that little conversation, but it’s one I
suspect I’m going to have one day. Through technology, justifiable
security concerns and outright paranoia, privacy is a dying concept.
Perhaps its most visible manifestation is the airport security line
where the once-proud inheritors of James Madison and George Mason stand
humbly, shoeless and beltless, while government employees poke their
intimate belongings.

Recall William Pitt’s ringing assertion of a citizen’s right to be secure in his home and belongings:

“The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of
the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow
through it; the storm may enter; the rain may enter; but the King of
England cannot enter _ all his force dares not cross the threshold of
the ruined tenement!”

Now that President Bush has asserted that
he needn’t be bound by even the faint privacy protections in the
Patriot Act, you’re lucky if you don’t come home to find the King in
your Barcalounger watching your wedding videos and reading aloud from
your diary.

And if it really was a crummy tenement, the local
government would have condemned it for an upscale mall and you would be
looking for someplace else to live.

William Pitt was an
Englishman, so it’s a small irony that London now is the world leader
in monitoring people through closed-circuit TVs that do such things as
automatically run the license plates of passing cars through a database.

“You’re always on CCTV somewhere,” a London police officer told The
Wall Street Journal, which noted that New York City officials were
studying how London does it. Smile, you’re eternally on candid camera.

It was recently disclosed that Google is battling a Bush administration
subpoena for all the requests the search engine received in a single
week _ a number surely in the tens of millions _ plus 1 million
randomly chosen Web site links. Think now: What did you Google last
year? Or look up on Yahoo, which also got a subpoena as did other
search engines?

The administration’s vague justification is that
it is trying to determine how best to protect children. Of course. Like
warrantless wiretaps for the National Security Agency and warrantless
sneak-and-peek searches for the FBI, these intrusions always start off
with the best of intentions. But inevitably it elides into whatever
piques the eavesdropper’s curiosity or sparks someone’s political

And it’s not just the government watching you and
listening to you. Private firms surreptitiously plant spyware in your
computer that reports everything you do on your computer and gathers up
your Social Security and credit-card numbers and ships them off to
commercial databases _ the better to serve you with the goods and
services you really want, of course.

The great axiom of privacy
was always “a man’s home is his castle.” To which now would be
appended, “If he needs a castle, he must be up to no good, so let’s
search the place and bring him in for questioning.”

Maybe I’d better rehearse another conversation.

“Grandpa, what’s ‘privacy’?”

“Get out of the way, Andy. You’re blocking my view of the television _ and its view of me.”

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)