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Electronic surveillance destroys privacy, but few seem to mind
San Francisco Chronicle


August 21, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO -- Americans are being closely and constantly watched, carefully scrutinized and meticulously monitored as never before. From government wiretapping, to Google cameras that offer up street-level views of private houses around the world, to mighty digital data banks that record and store everything from real-estate-loan applications to pizza purchases, the machinery of observation and analysis has become powerful and pervasive.

And how do members of the public react to all this unsought attention? In most cases, they either take it for granted or feel reassured. To a considerable extent, whether through willing acquiescence or willful innocence, people seem surprisingly ready to accept what would have been seen, not so long ago, as alarming invasions of privacy.

Indeed, in an age that empowers anyone with a cell-phone camera and an Internet connection, we're all free to participate in this surge of information gathering and revelation. All of us can be spied on and engage in some high-visibility spying of our own.

"People have a desire to be protected," says Oscar Gandy, professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. "We have this expectation that technology will solve the problem."

Jennifer King, a research specialist at the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the University of California-Berkeley, believes that "surveillance feels comfortable to some people."

"There's a sense of guardianship, a feeling that someone is watching over me. It counteracts that aura of anonymity in the public space," she says.

Gary Marx was a 1960s UC-Berkeley activist and civil libertarian who once took a "sky is falling" view that privacy was gravely endangered; he opposed virtually all intrusions. Today the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus has a more measured approach to the issue.

"Nobody used to check the backgrounds of adults who wanted to work with children," Marx says. "It's appropriate that we do that now. Children are safer because of it." Marx even argues that the problem of identity theft could be substantially controlled if people were willing to absorb the social and ethical costs of encoding more personal and biometric information, including facial topography and eye-recognition data.

While calling some aspects of the Bush administration's Patriot Act and other programs predicated on national security "clearly illegal," Marx does not reject them entirely. "History moves in cycles," he says. "In periods of crisis and perceived threat, there is going to be less liberty."

Much of the current scrutiny is out in the open and freely accepted by the public. As the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks approaches, the screening and shoe-removal rituals at airports are generally viewed as prudent if inconvenient measures. Parents might regret that their children must pass through metal detectors on their way into school, but few would object to the presumed increase in safety with fewer weapons in backpacks and lockers.

Other public programs, such as the National Security Agency's wiretaps, are more problematic. Last week, in a San Francisco courtroom, three federal appeals judges appeared to rebuff the administration's request that lawsuits challenging the wiretaps be dismissed.

A key question that historians of early-21st-century America will have to confront is the justification for the widespread erosions of privacy. To what degree did 9/11 and the war on terror mandate a fundamental change in the nature of individual freedoms and autonomy? And to what extent were the policies a product of fear-mongering and politically motivated exploitation?

A number of privacy experts believe that the real concerns lie less in the public sphere than they do in the largely unregulated environs of commerce.

"It's a simple fact that private companies can collect information about people in ways the government can't," Robert O'Harrow Jr. wrote in his 2005 book "No Place to Hide." "At the same time, they can't be held accountable for their behavior or their mistakes the way government agencies can."

The Annenberg School's Gandy focuses on the ways in which increasingly sophisticated data banks can be used to discriminate in everything from housing loans to whether a taxi or pizza-delivery truck will be dispatched to a particular neighborhood. "People don't understand how information they are giving away at the shopping center in order to get a discount on something can become harmful to them as individuals," he says. "This segmentation and targeting are tearing us apart."

Paul Krassner, the satirist, author and stand-up comic who came to prominence as a journalist and founder of the Realist magazine in the late 1950s, is struck by "blatant" changes in "fearful, control-freak invasions of privacy" in recent years. He recalls an event put on by author Ken Kesey in Bend, Ore., in the 1970s, when "the one constant, across the spectrum from liberal to conservative, was the importance of privacy."

The current zeitgeist shift alarms some observers. "The way we create trust and friendship is by selectively revealing aspects of ourselves to others," says Mark Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy and Information Center, or EPIC, in Washington. "That's how we form bonds. One thing that is very disturbing about these various systems of surveillance is that they tend to dismantle a lot of the social architecture that foster those connections."


E-mail Steven Winn at swinn(at)
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Ketchikan, Alaska