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Minding our business

Dec 20, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Amid technical advances and emerging security concerns, privacy takes a beating

Once upon a time, privacy was a major issue in the public mind. That's not nearly so true anymore.

But privacy ought to maintain a prominent place in public consciousness, if for no other reason than it is disappearing at a breakneck speed, cloaked by masks of "convenience," "communication" and "security."

Rights to privacy are built into the U.S. Constitution. Many people don't realize it, but the landmark Roe vs. Wade case regarding abortion in the United States was argued largely on privacy grounds. Laws against unreasonable search and seizure are grounded in the privacy concerns.

As with many things originating in the 18th century, times have changed. Jefferson and Adams never considered credit cards, security cameras, smartphones, and the Internet. But advances in technology -- beginning at least as long ago as the telegraph -- have put pressure on how our conceptions and protections of privacy are practiced and interpreted.

From Facebook and Twitter, to Snowden and Manning, to WikiLeaks and Internet bullying, to compromised credit cards at Target stores, to drone surveillance and the new video camera at Riverton City Park, this is a complicated coin with many sides.

A modern-day parable says that toothpaste can't be put back into the tube. Actually, it can, but only with great effort. Most people wouldn't want to bother. For the average citizen, the remarkable swiftness and convenience of instant communications and social networking offer sparkly, unendingly enticing avenues from which to travel away from personal privacy.

For local governments, the undeniable need to make our public spaces safer requires a willingness among private citizens to be watched in more situations then ever before.

For national governments, changes in modern warfare and the atrocities of modern terrorism necessitate an unprecedented reliance on electronic surveillance on telephone calls, e-mails, Internet browsing and text-style communication.

Generational changes already have eroded many traditional notions of personal privacy. People younger than a certain age today simply don't care very much about it when privacy is balanced against the marvels of Gchat and the iPhone.

A generation from now, assuming that "advances" in communication and surveillance technology continue apace, rights of privacy in the constitutional sense may have evaporated to the point that the founding fathers, transported forward to the mid 21st-century, couldn't find them under a microscope.

Privacy was an important enough issue at the dawn of our nation that it was written into our founding documents. Those concerns of "privacy" aren't based on the notion of doing something naughty with the door closed -- although such considerations are part of the dense soup of personal privacy. In a larger sense, matters of religion, affiliation, speech, health care, finance and freedom of thought all are tied closely to rights of privacy. Each time we impose another obstacle to privacy, and each time we agree to that imposition, a little more paste comes out of the tube.

Certain facts must be faced. Anyone who insists on total privacy these days had better move to a mountaintop (although even there a satellite or a drone could spot you and take note of the magazine you are reading).

Short of that, our basic protections or privacy come down mostly to the place they always have -- free citizens in an ongoing discussion. Is this how we want to live? Is there a point at which enough is enough? Could past atrocities have been prevented if only we had kept a better eye on each other? To what extent will we trade privacy for security, privacy for entertainment, privacy for easier socializing?

That discussion has never been more important. Amid all of our new worries, our new opportunities and our new technical abilities, it must continue vigorously.

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