What’s private anymore?

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The recent revelations that our government collects telephone records and intercepts Internet communications have led to a great hue and cry throughout the world.

I don’t deny the revelations are shocking. But what’s shocking to me is that the programs have been revealed, not that they are taking place.

I am also shocked by how surprised so many people seem to be that privacy and secrecy aren’t valued the way they used to be. Our privacy is no longer valued or protected by our government, by businesses, by journalists — or by the rest of us, really.

If we just look around, we can see evidence of this in nearly every aspect of our daily lives.

Do we join frequent flyer and frequent buyer clubs? Use grocery store and drugstore discount programs? Sign up for credit cards that offer small refunds?

All of these track every purchase we make and use that information to spit out competitors’ coupons at the cash register and to bombard us with offers to buy.

Yes, we voluntarily use the cards. They aren’t forced upon us. But our consumer buying habits are easily bought, and they are directly used to influence us.

Do we buy GPS devices and cell phones with GPS functionality? How about smartphone apps that help us navigate traffic, find nearby stores and hotels, and choose our music and news for us based on our past “expressed preferences”?

Again, we willingly, even eagerly, seek out these useful services. But all of them are keeping close tabs on our every movement — where we drive and when, what we read and listen to, where we shop and what we spend.

Today’s businesses know more about each of us than ever before. And if you read the fine print of their “terms of use,” you will see that this information is available as well to other businesses they choose to work with, and to all levels of government investigators whenever there’s a potentially reasonable need for it.

The same certainly goes for phone call records, and that should not be news, either. Don’t we regularly read news reports indicating that wrongdoers (bribed officials, philandering husbands, thieves) were caught by police or private detectives who searched through their phone records?

And what about the Internet searches we do at home or work? The “cookies” planted by every site we visit are not to satisfy our hunger, but that of those who own or manage the sites and search engines.

We run a light at an intersection, and we get a ticket in the mail. How long might it be before speeding tickets are issued to us automatically based on what our GPS measures as our traveling speed?

Two fellows casually put down their backpacks at the Boston marathon and walk away. Within hours, a video of their actions is splashed on television screens around the world.

Is it a revelation that all of us are similarly being filmed whenever we do nearly anything outside our homes?

We used to be able to choose, for the most part, what aspects of our lives were lived in public. But it has become more and more difficult to even function today without “choosing” to lose our privacy.

We can no longer walk down a sidewalk, enter a building, drive in our cars, shop in a store, or surf the Internet with a reasonable expectation of privacy.

I don’t point this out to indicate a categorical objection. On the contrary, I am generally pleased that our law enforcement officers are able to so readily locate my fellow Americans who steal credit and ATM cards, rob banks, and plant bombs on the street.

Furthermore, there’s no denying that we live in dangerous times. There are many groups and individuals throughout the world who publicly announce their intention to try to kill and maim as many Americans as they can.

I have every reason to believe they mean what they say, and if there are ways to detect and prevent them from doing so, I think we should be pursuing them.

But there is definitely a trade-off going on here, and I am surprised that more Americans don’t seem to have realized it before. I guess it’s time we started talking about it.

Different people will have different opinions regarding how much general snooping they are willing to tolerate, and how much they trust those institutions — including Congress and the courts, as well as attorneys and investigative journalists — who provide some checks and balances to protect citizens from government overreaching.

In the end, it all comes down to whom you trust. I invite you to share your thoughts on this subject through a letter or email to the editor.

I leave you with one last thought. This whole debate has been sparked by high-level secrets published in a British newspaper and the Washington Post. There used to be a time when reputable news organizations consulted with the U.S. government before revealing state secrets that might conceivably undermine citizen protections. The days when our government had such privacy rights seem to be gone as well.