The Privacy Paradox: In Keeping with the Policy of the Humanist to Accommodate the Diverse Cultural, Social, Political, and Philosophical Viewpoints of Its Readers, This Occasional Feature Allows for the Expression of Alternative, Dissenting, or Opposing Views on Issues Previously Broached within These Pages

Article excerpt

Eavesdropping on conversations is not as satisfying as it used to be. No more straining to decipher hushed murmurs, slyly feigning disinterest while fighting off twinges of guilt. The ubiquitous cell phone conspires with the now-entrenched belief that each of us has a life so interesting that everyone should know about it to take the sense of accomplishment out of snooping. While hunched over the newspaper having lunch at a coffee kiosk recently, I was distracted by a patron loudly narrating into his cell phone the details of a sexual adventure he had undertaken apparently under the radar of his already suspicious wife. As his story reached its climax, I happened to stumble across an article in my newspaper on the Defense Department's Total Information Awareness project (renamed Terrorism Information Awareness before being shut down by Congress)--a system of databases and information-mining technologies that allegedly would enable massive monitoring and tracking of individuals. When the happy conquistador had finished his call, I leaned over, pointed to the headline, and asked if he would mind sharing that information with the peeping toms at the Pentagon. He told me to mind my own business.

The right to privacy is fundamental to a free and flourishing society and a basic element of Humanism's defense of freedom of thought and personal fulfillment. Our natural tendency to absorb the feelings and judgments of others imprisons the psyche without the secret passageways of deliverance that privacy provides. Thus, our legal and political traditions carve out an area in which private individuals may act without public scrutiny, protecting our homes against intrusion and our thoughts and decisions from meddling authorities. But more than a legal protection, the pursuit of privacy has become a national obsession. Our homes are self-contained, impregnable fortresses inaccessible to the prying eyes of neighbors; our cars monuments to solitude hurtling past life's mise en scene behind barriers of metal and concrete. Calls for the privatization of everything from schools to water supplies congeal with the sacramental language of self-reliance, self-realization, and self-determination to place much of modern life within the realm of private choice.

Yet, as we continue to make a fetish of privacy, it is receding as rapidly as baby boomers' hairlines. Security devices undress us in public venues. Employers routinely monitor employees' communications. Identity theft has become a major criminal enterprise. Insurance companies will soon be rummaging through our genetic heritage, culling the dispossessed from their bottom line. Profiteers, monitoring surfing habits on the Internet, trade traces of guilty pleasures like pork-belly futures or leave them to be used by law enforcement to blackmail dissenters into conformity. Experts in the technology of surveillance promise a future of ubiquitous cameras, face recognition systems, and tracking devices to monitor the movement of individuals. In the interest of public safety, we publicize e-mail conversations of stock analysts, probe the content of travelers' luggage, and post the addresses of sexual predators on the Internet. In the interest of fairness, we monitor the bloodstreams of athletes and copy machine propositions by salacious supervisors. If these routine affronts to privacy weren't enough to stoke paranoia among the anonymous multitudes, the Patriot Act has law enforcement agog with a developing prurient interest in our reading habits and political activities.

It isn't only the government or big business pushing the boundaries of privacy. Daytime television has become a public confessional where ordinary citizens shamelessly submit the most sordid aspects of family strife or personal failure to the scrutiny of a national audience. The public, encouraged by an obliging media, voraciously gobbles up intimate details of the lives of public figures as if such information were an entitlement. …