Flashbacks March 2006

Private Domain

Three Atlantic authors consider the fine line between security and breach of privacy
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Since 9/11, many Americans have been worried about the loss of personal privacy brought on by the government's efforts to prevent terrorist attacks. The National Security Agency's wiretapping program has come under fire for giving the government carte blanche to listen in on telephone conversations, read emails, and view Web searches, all without a warrant. Likewise, some have criticized the U.S. Patriot Act for what they see as a violation of basic American civil liberties.

At the center of the debate lies a crucial question: is it feasible for the American public to demand a high level of national security without resorting to government invasion of personal privacy? A look at some recent Atlantic articles makes clear that the debate over personal privacy is not easily resolved.

In a 1996 article "High Resolution, Unresolved," Mary Graham explored some of the new privacy concerns brought about by the digital age. Previously, she explained, the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable government trespass had been universally understood to imply no inappropriate physical intrusion onto an individual or business's private property. But, she pointed out,  "when wiretapping and hidden microphones made intrusion possible without breaking down doors or climbing fences, the idea of privacy became more subjective."

Graham noted that satellite mapping of the earth, a rapidly developing technology, raises key concerns about "the ground rules." On the one hand, the government can use photographs taken from space to protect the public interest, identifying hazardous waste sites and preventing the spread of forest fires. But where the public and private coincide, the debate begins.

Where to draw the line between personal privacy and the public and commercial need for information will become urgent when high-resolution surveillance is routine. For the first time, detailed pictures of every piece of private property in the United States will be routinely compiled and marketed. Commercial satellites cannot yet produce images of people, but they can show vehicles parked in driveways and structural changes to homes. They can provide images within a few hours and exact comparisons of the same property at precise intervals without giving clues about their presence—things that aerial photography cannot do.

Five years later, in "The Reinvention of Privacy" (March 2001), Toby Lester highlighted the intersection between cutting-edge technological innovations and the development of privacy as a business of sorts. Lester noted that a 1999 poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC indicated that Americans are more concerned about privacy than about most other major global issues, including "overpopulation, racial tensions, and global warming." As the public's fear-driven interest in maintaining a secure identity increases, he observed, the market for privacy-enhancing tools grows accordingly. Companies by the names of "Anonymizer" "Hushmail" "IDcide" "PrivacyX" and "ZipLip" have sprouted to safeguard online identity. In marketing circles, this burgeoning sector has become known as "the privacy space."

Companies old and new are getting into the business. The number of newly registered privacy-related trademarks and patents has risen dramatically in the past few years; they include everything from banking services and computer technologies to window treatments and even an independent software agent ("for protecting consumers' privacy") called Privacy Just Got Cool.

But as Lester makes clear, the commercialization of privacy brings into question the government's role in protecting individual privacy.

It is interesting to note here that no right to privacy is specified in the Constitution. This comes as a surprise to many people, who tend to assume that privacy is one of the bedrock rights upon which American society is built.

In fact, Lester noted, the very concept of privacy is relatively new—it did not emerge until America's vast open spaces had largely filled in.

Until the late nineteenth century Americans for the most part thought of privacy as a physical concept: if one needed to protect it, or just wanted more of it, one simply moved west, where there were fewer people likely to know or care what one was doing. By the closing years of the nineteenth century, however, things had changed: the frontier's limits had been reached, the population was growing rapidly, and a blitz of novel technologies had arrived.

Finally, for Walter Kirn, personal privacy is ultimately a philosophical question. In his 2002 article "The Mother of Reinvention," he discussed the proposed implementation of government-issued identification tags, prefacing his argument against it by summarizing what it means to be an American.

Although the Constitution doesn't directly mention it, Americans have always reserved the right to reinvent themselves—to wade into the waters of rebirth and emerge with new faiths, new livelihoods, new spouses, new sexual preferences, and even new names. .... In American legal and cultural tradition one essential privilege of citizenship is not having to prove it on demand. If a cop swaggers up to you on the street tomorrow and asks for your name, you won't be breaking any laws if you answer "Walt Whitman" or "Mickey Mouse." Not that you have to give any name at all.
From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "When Social Security Was Young" (May 4, 2005)
Three articles from the 1930s to the 1960s consider the early, uncertain days of Social Security.

Kirn cited the Social Security numbers that garnered public outrage during the New Deal as the first big loss of personal privacy in U.S. history. He also lauded the quintessential American ability to disappear or "go underground": the very one that allowed abolitionists to free slaves during the civil war and anti-war protesters in the 1960s to maintain their social freedom.

Some of America's attachment to privacy, he wrote, does stem from "Orwellian fears of bureaucratic snooping." But more importantly, he contended, the nation derives much of its greatness from its fluidity, its willingness to hold government at bay and let people shape their own destinies. "In America," he writes, "to be ID'd—sorted, tagged, and permanently filed—is to lose a bit of one's soul."

Jonathan Perez

Jonathan Perez is an intern for The Atlantic Online.
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