Privacy for sale

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There was a time we spoke about our “right to privacy” or our “reasonable expectation of privacy” as though we understood what those phrases meant. It was a given of American values that every individual had a fundamental right to be left alone to pursue his or her own form of happiness as long as the rights of others were respected.

There was a whole realm of private life, where what you did “behind closed doors” was generally not subject to public scrutiny. Yes, many states long had laws proscribing certain behaviors in bedrooms, but they were generally ignored and virtually never enforced.

Speaking of which, people who lived much of their lives in public — politicians, celebrities — naturally had a more constrained expectation of privacy. They, in a sense, earned their livings off the public, so they were expected to understand that their private lives would be of particular interest to the masses. Still, generally only sleazy publications would actually seek out private information about their personal behavior and relationships.

When I was growing up, my mother was good friends with the Washington correspondent for our local paper in Fort Worth, Texas. Years later, my mom told me that the reporter had confided in her about President Kennedy’s many liaisons during his first years in office, which were well known among the press corps.

When I asked why the reporter hadn’t publicized the fact, my mom said it wasn’t considered appropriate to do so at the time. First, it was a private matter. And second, JFK was such a respected and admired public figure that no one wanted to damage his image.

Similarly, even until rather recently, professional paparazzi were denounced for snapping photos of the rich and famous in their private lives for personal gain. Remember the revulsion at the paparazzi car chase of Princess Diana that ended in her untimely death?

But today, things appear to have completely changed. We are all paparazzi, every one of us with a cell phone, either brazenly or surreptitiously snapping, videoing or recording whatever we choose at any time — the more private, the better.

In our post 9/11 world, cameras are filming every inch of every public thoroughfare 24 hours a day, in some places whiffing the odors that escape our bodies or packages.

And it’s not just out on the street. The interiors of almost every mall and building, including the elevators and probably a number of bathrooms, are wired (or wi-fied) for sound and closed-circuit television.

Those “security cameras” were placed there, with general public consent, to help protect us from (or catch) terrorists and criminals. Within hours, we knew what one of the Boston Marathon bombers looked like, thanks to them.

But how quickly they’ve morphed into means for security guards or passers-by to make a fast buck by copying salacious or amusing footage and selling it to a TV station, gossip website or political enemy.

Even private cellphone conversations can be easily hacked and taped, then publicized worldwide within minutes. A person’s whole life can change in an hour.

In addition, much of our “identity” — our credit card numbers, personal information, shopping history — is now in the “cloud,” where it can easily be stolen by hackers, even from huge, sophisticated organizations like (the ironically named) Target.

It’s not just the new technology and concern over national security that have shrunk our zone of privacy to almost nothing.

We the people are also responsible. We live in an age where most of us willingly “agree” to turn over much of our private information to companies when we like the discounts or coupons we get in return.

We shower publicity, and often adulation and even money, on people who “share” with us personal information, photos and film about the private lives of the rich and famous, not to mention classified data and security secrets of government at every level.

Popular mobile apps like Snapchat were created to simplify the sending of naked photos to friends and others.

For years now, reality shows have been the most popular shows on television. People willingly put their whole lives on public display — their search for a job, their search for a spouse, their home life — for the sheer pleasure of becoming celebrities of a sort or winning a big prize at the end. 

We seem to have an insatiable appetite for such material. Salacious videos “go viral” (reach millions of people online within hours) because there’s such a demand for them. In a culture where another person’s private life is deemed sacrosanct, videos of private encounters simply would not go viral. There’s a great supply because there’s a great demand.

To maintain a sphere of privacy, we as a society — and as individuals — have to value personal privacy, make an effort to maintain our privacy, and discourage or ostracize those who invade others’ privacy.

Until we do so, we can’t be surprised that we get the world we deserve; the world we have made for ourselves.