2012-02-17 / Columnists

A Rising Tide

The Myth Of Privacy
Commentary By Dr. Harold Paez

An excerpt from a recent phone conversation:

Me: Hello?

Other Person: ... Yeah, is this the sewer man?

Me: ... uhh, No!

Other Person: I’m calling about a sewer backup.

Me: Yeah, but I’m not the sewer guy.

Other Person: ... he said he’d be here by 1:00.

Me: Yeah, that’s not me!

Other Person: ... oh, ok, this isn’t the sewer com pany?

Me: Right, wrong number.

Other Person: oh ok.

Me: ok, bye.

Other Person: bye.

While most issues of privacy have little to do with innocuous wrong number calls, this recent conversation with an unknown caller on the other side brings up the potent concept of a citizen’s right to privacy. What exactly is this right defined as in these days of NSA monitoring, Facebook web pages and Googling? When random calls can suddenly become more than random, as in the case of identity theft where the caller on the other side may only need to confirm additional information to add to the file pilfered from a stack of discarded papers or a password stolen after hacking your e-mail account. Information about the other person such as the correct spelling of their last name or their home phone number.

In the past, talk about a National Identity Card similar to a Social Security card but containing vital information marking one’s identity as true, had ACLU types up in arms with visions of an intrusive government which didn’t have the right to have such information. From the Right we had the argument that if you are doing nothing wrong, what does it matter if it’s in the interest of public safety? The conversation has since devolved into a stand on the Left which is, ostensibly, still based on the right to privacy but more and more becomes a ploy to protect their political/voting constituencies. This, in light of the glaringly apparent erosion of privacy already evident to anyone with access to a computer and a name to look up.

Privacy it seems, is a concept fading faster than you can say “search engine.” Had a bad day at the office and yelled one too many times? Don’t be surprised if you end up on a co-worker’s phone video at happy hour.

Split your pants bending over at the gym? You may be the next YouTube.com star and entertaining millions in Brussels by dinnertime.

Ironically, today, with the advent of ever more sophisticated computers, networking platforms and data mining capabilities, it may be that a national identity card containing unique biometric data is the only way to insure our personal identity from theft and misappropriation.

Ceding, huge chunks of our individual right to privacy has been the unspoken toll levied for entry into our brave new age of texting, tweeting and skyping. Such words had little meaning 10 years ago but today, have all the weight of a society stripped (literally in the case of our former Congressman Weiner) of a once closely guarded concept.

If you happen to have an EZ Pass and use it to cross any of the city’s toll bridges, the MTA has a detailed file on your daily trips through the five boroughs including dates, photos and times. If you have a Blackberry or any cellular phone for that matter, the wireless carrier has a lengthy portfolio of your Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) locations based on the “pings” from the nationwide system of wireless antennas set up to let you speak to friends whether you happen to be hanging out at Greenwood cemetery or hanging upside down at Coney Island amusement park. If you like the convenience of ATM machines, don’t forget that they also double as photo booths for the bank. An essential part of Isaac Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics states that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Physicist Stephen Hawking has expanded that law to apply to information. Even in a Black Hole, information is retained and not detroyed, it hangs at the event horizon forever in a state of suspension, similar to anyone who has ever had to wait for a credit reporting agency to fix an error on their credit report!

The point is clear; we all have a doppelganger following us around our daily routine whether we realize it or not. Whether we acknowledge this “intrusion” or accept it willingly, it is there to leave a computerized fingerprint or a snapshot of our daily activities.

The ethical and legal challenges facing us in the near future are based on our willingness to accept or reject this new definition of privacy and the standards which will be set, out of necessity, to re-establish our uniqueness in the face of a carefully constructed and detailed computer image of ourselves.

For my part, I was sure to mentally note the name of the random caller that appeared on my home phone asking about a scheduled sewer service. These days, even basic phone calls leave a lasting imprint on phone caller ID displays.

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