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Someone’s Watching

August 23, 2012

Ronald Bailey in WSJ:

Privacy encompasses the real and virtual spaces where you can think your most heretical thoughts without the fear of social and political consequences and where you can seal the bonds of love and friendship. In “Privacy,” Garret Keizer grapples with the meaning and importance of maintaining places where we are left alone to think what we will, love whom we must and bear the indignities of life’s pratfalls.

But Mr. Keizer, a Harper’s Magazine contributing editor, turns out to be a curmudgeonly and somewhat uncertain guide to the threats to privacy posed by the modern world—and he is no guide at all to practical proposals for countering those dangers. There are two chief sources of danger to our privacy: commerce (snooping by businesses eager to send targeted advertisements and spam through Web browsers and email) and government, with its myriad and burgeoning forms of surveillance and data-gathering.

With regard to modern commerce, Mr. Keizer grumps: “We would do well to ask if the capitalist economy and its obsessions with smart marketing and technological innovation cannot become as intrusive as any authoritarian state.” Actually, no. If consumers become sufficiently annoyed with mercantile snooping and excessive marketing, they can take their business to competitors who are more respectful of privacy. Not so with the citizens of an intrusive state. (…)

In his 2009 book, “American Privacy,” Frederick S. Lane asserts: “At its core, the history of America is the history of the right to privacy.” After all, what is the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee—”the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated”—if not substantially a guarantee of the right to privacy?

Unfortunately, traditional defenses against government intrusion are being steadily eroded. Mr. Keizer cites “Rule of Law, Misrule of Men” (2010), where Harvard professor Elaine Scarry outlines how the misbegotten USA Patriot Act, passed in panic following the 9/11 atrocities, has turned the constitutional understanding of private citizens and open government upside down: “Our inner lives become transparent, and the workings of the government become opaque.” [More]

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