Will Privacy Become as Extinct as the Dodo?

Article excerpt

Across the country this spring, mailboxes have been filling with plain white envelopes bearing a solemn heading that reads: "Important Privacy Notice."

Inside, leaflets and brochures, sent by banks, stores, and credit- card companies, deliver a dual message. On the one hand, they say, Trust us. We're good guys. We care about protecting your privacy. At the same time, they explain all the ways in which they're entitled to use and share highly personal details of customers' lives.

Devoid of color or graphics and written in bland, just-the-facts- ma'am prose, these leaflets drone on about "nonpublic personal finance" and "nonexperience information." Huh? But rest assured. It's possible, they tell us, to "opt out" of information-sharing if we wish.

For most recipients, these privacy policies are the latest form of glance-and-toss junk mail. So much fine print, so little time.

But for those who take time to read - or at least skim - them, they serve as a sobering reminder of just how deeply the information age has invaded nearly every aspect of our lives.

The message between the lines is: Big Brother is watching you - and listening and recording and sharing.

What a far cry from the innocent days when the biggest privacy issue for some of us might have been keeping a nosy sibling from finding the key to a teenage diary. Today, life is becoming an open book for nearly everyone.

Still, all may not be lost. Writing in the March issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Toby Lester offers a measure of good news. He counters the dire predictions that new surveillance and information- gathering technologies spell the end of privacy. A booming market for privacy-protection products and services, he says, will lead to an entirely new sector of the economy, called "the privacy space."

Privacy-lovers can only hope Mr. Lester is right.

Yet a strange contradiction exists. We worry - rightly - about losing control of personal information in everything from our finances to our health to our DNA. But our privacy is vanishing in other ways as well - sometimes involuntarily, other times voluntarily.

Consider the young Princeton graduate who arrived in Seoul earlier this month to begin a job with a private equity firm, the Carlyle Group. In his third day on the job, he sent an e-mail to 11 of his nearest and dearest colleagues at Merrill Lynch in New York, where he formerly worked, boasting about his sexual conquests and lavish lifestyle.

Finding the message too irresistible to keep to themselves, some recipients forwarded it to others. The e-mail quickly circled the globe, and the devastated boaster lost his job. Moral of the story: Privacy is a fragile commodity on the Internet.

It's also an elusive ideal in some offices. Cubicles, the business furniture of choice for several decades, offer a measure of visual privacy. …