Who’s watching now? And who cares?

WHO’S WATCHING YOU NOW? (Shutterstock).

You may remember the War on Drugs from the Eighties. You probably also realize that Drugs won, as evidenced by the march of decriminalization and legalization across the Republic.

Today’s bogeyman is The Death of Privacy. This has been sneaking up on us for decades, really, but it’s all come to the front page with the recent revelations about the National Security Agency (and other fun federal groups) snooping around your phone records, et al.

The popular image is that Uncle Sam (or perhaps Barack Obama himself) is listening in on your phone conversations, which is pretty darn unlikely. Even if we assume that this is the intent, how could it be possible? You’d have to hire half the country to spy on the other half.

Add to that the fact that the vast majority of phone conversations are banal and hard-to-follow and you’ve got a recipe for … nothing useful.

What they are looking at is not the content of calls, but where they are headed. If a fellow from New York City makes 11 calls a day to the Iranian defense ministry, that’s bound to wave a red flag. You calling your aunt … not so much.

To me, the most interesting thing about all of this is the degree to which we have already, more-or-less voluntarily, given up our privacy.  Facebook is a prime example. More than 1 billion people have joined, and about 200 million Americans are in that number.

We have given this corporation tons of personal information about us, and through the various messaging systems, a vast amount of private conversations.  To a lesser extent, we have similarly yielded to Google and Yahoo and Pinterest, and they’re selling our data to marketing firms so big business can sell us more stuff.

We do this because it’s “free” and does provide some conveniences. But this free comes with a price, perhaps.

It’s not just on our computers that we have forfeited our privacy. A rise in people running red lights has led to traffic cameras. Concern about terrorism has led to everything from closed-circuit cameras in millions of public places to the excesses of the Patriot Act, which allows for the Feds to examine records of which books were checked out at public libraries.

Smartphones and electronic systems in cars can be tracked; the means exists to turn off car engines remotely. Credit card records make for a convenient way to not only examine someone’s buying patterns but also that person’s movements.

The list goes on and on. Modern houses are built so close together that physical privacy is impaired. The rise of mass transit systems may alleviate traffic jams and pollution but it packs us all together, doesn’t it?

I’m not here to say that we are nearly at an Armageddon of intrusiveness. Rather, my point is that the march of progress and technology always is full of trade-offs. The connectedness of the Internet and the iPhone is balanced by the irritations and possible dangers they bring.

History is full of examples. The telephone was the first major assault on our privacy (and continues now, in spite of do-not-call lists); automobiles added another attack on the one-time charm of distance.

We like – perhaps need – the airline industry, but who doesn’t bristle at the long lines and indignities of security measures and charming TSA agents?

It is difficult to strike the proper balance between freedom and safety. The World Trade Center attacks of 9/11 killed about 3,000 people, but more than twice that many fell in the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg.  We are becoming less tolerant of death (a good thing) but more tolerant of the measures “necessary” to prevent it.

If privacy concerns lead to a relaxation of vigilance by the Feds, that will be popular until some tragedy strikes, and then folks will be howling for more security, more intrusiveness and less privacy once again.

Are those the choices? Fear of terrorism or fear of  tyranny?? Are there no other alternatives?

I like the suggestion of one comedian who assumed his calls were being monitored so whenever he picked up the phone, he said “Hi” to the (theoretical) eavesdropper and sought to strike up a rapport.

If we’re going to have to live with Big Brother, why not make him really feel like one of the family? Satire sounds like more fun than paranoia.

This is a classic Retorts from 2013.

Categories: Opinion

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