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Why Privacy Is a 21st Century Myth

Guarding the innermost secrets of our data lives, both laudable and necessary, is one thing. The whole brouhaha over maintaining the chimera of our privacy, is another, and is as pointless and ludicrous and building a sand castle to protect us against a tidal wave.
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You cherish your privacy, don't you?

Do me a favor. Go into your bathroom. Check for hidden cameras. Pull down the window shade. Get naked. Shut the door. Sit down.

You may now cherish your privacy.

Just don't expect to cherish it for long. Eventually someone else in your home will want to, um, cherish their privacy.

I raise this privacy issue because today (January 28) is Data Privacy Day in the U.S., Canada and 27 European, coordinated and promoted by the National Cyber Security Alliance. Data Privacy Day is not to be confused with National Cyber Security Awareness Month in October.

Along with Father's, Mother's and Veteran's days, these data privacy observances confuse me. Considering nearly daily reports of data security breaches, identity theft a common enough shared experience to prompt a Hollywood comedy and the ongoing attempt to wrestle Big Brother's big brother, the NSA, to the ground, shouldn't every day and every month be dedicated to data privacy?

On its Stay Safe Online Web site, the NCSA offers a library of resources to educate and aid us in our quest to keep our data private, and the Internet Society today started offering some divide-your-digital-life advice for safe-guarding your data life.

Guarding the innermost secrets of our data lives, both laudable and necessary, is one thing. The whole brouhaha over maintaining the chimera of our privacy, is another, and is as pointless and ludicrous and building a sand castle to protect us against a tidal wave.

I'm not fatalistic or cynical, just realistic. In the span of less than a century, we have have lost any vestige of the unlocked-front-door privacy mythically enjoyed by our grandparents, with more loss to come.

But this loss of privacy is not necessarily the fault of the government, the Internet, insecure retailers or credit card companies, or any other outside agency.

As Pogo famously observed, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

Our anonymous past

Once upon a time in our sepia-toned past, we could wander about the country with anonymous ease. This identity freedom, while not exactly spelled out in the Constitution, is a cornerstone of our national political philosophy.

But then, thanks to phone directories, driver's licenses, Social Security numbers, credit cards and cable TV, "they" knew our name, our phone number, where we lived and what clunker we put ourselves into hock to drive, who we called and when, what we watched on TV, how much money we have, and how and where we spend it.

We mostly correctly judged the advantages and conveniences these advances wrought outweighed their privacy-eroding annoyances.

Then came the Internet and the Web, which shattered any remaining semblance of our anonymity. Your Internet service provider (ISP) - the company who supplies your Internet connection - knows not only what Web sites you visit, who you emailed and who emailed you, but the contents of these visitations and correspondences.

Each time we dial up the Internet, go to a Web page, perform a search, make a purchase, fill in our email address, use our smartphone for calling, texting, emailing or checking out local traffic or finding a nearby restaurant, that data is recorded by someone someplace, with varying levels of impersonal, benign or malignant intentions.

Again, we judged the Internet's advantages outweighed our new normal privacy paranoia.

Then we decided not to fight but to join the privacy invasion via constant updates to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, FourSquare, et al.

Yes, I know - social network posts consist of information we choose to share. You also choose to surf the net, shop online and send emails and texts. Once you unlock your data door, you can't complain how the thief stole stuff you didn't want them to steal.

We are willing collaborators in our own privacy invasion. And we know it, even if we don't want to admit it out loud.

Paying for Privacy

At the dawn of our data surrender, Spencer Tracy, the Clarence Darrow stand-in in Inherit the Wind, sagely observed:

[P]rogress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there's a man who sits behind a counter and says, "Alright, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance... Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline."

We make the same bargain when we accept the conveniences of modern digital technology. The price is our data privacy.

But be comforted. Privacy-shattering technology also solves more crimes, aborts terrorism, gathers more information about what our government is and politicians are (or aren't) doing, exposes corruption, fuels global pro-democracy movements and helps topple totalitarian regimes. That should help make the technology/privacy bargain less devilish.

Should we abandon all efforts to try and keep our personal data secure? Of course not, hense the helpful hints from the NCSA, the Internet Society and others.

But let's not pretend that privacy intrusions are all someone else's fault or problem to solve.

But never mind all that now. I think my bathroom is empty now.