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eLearning Series


8/29/2002 BOULDER, CO

Privacy articles are often a lot like science fiction stories: they both take the latest trends, such as wireless location tracking via cell phones, and attempt to predict or prevent an Orwellian, “Big-Brother”-is-watching future. Often such privacy predictions come true, as in the recent murder case of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion. Police believe suspect Alejandro Avila’s cell phone location tracking system placed him near the scene of the crime. Looking back at the past 12 months, privacy in America has undergone a significant shift.

After the September 11 attacks, Americans willingly traded their individual privacy for the promise of increased security. Trust in government went up and people allowed their public servants permission to peer into the details of their once-private lives. Has it is gone too far? For the ex-Army researcher suspected of playing a role in last year’s anthrax attacks, the answer would probably be yes. In the example of the quaint small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business, government secrecy and individual privacy is minimal.

Such transparency can keep people honest, but even then, information is often aggregated by a few gossipers. Simply put, not everyone needs to know everything about everybody. With access to such information comes the temptation for abuse. When government has the power to keep its activities private but has the ability to peer into the lives of its citizens without concern for the rights of the individual, such control often takes the shape of South American dictatorships and war-torn, warlord-controlled fiefdoms in Africa.

On the other hand, when individuals have the ability to protect the release of their private information from prying government eyes, the temptation to avoid paying taxes and commit fraud and abuse against other individuals can take root. In Russia, a group of men called the oligarchs rule the still-developing economy with a form of crony capitalism that’s beyond the reach of the weakened, post-Communist government. In the U.S., CEOs of companies like Enron and others felt that they too were beyond reach. Even professional baseball players have in the past used their positions of considerable economic power to avoid “invasive” drug testing.

If individual privacy is about controlling access to and the release of personal information, strong individual privacy is only possible when the rights of the individual are held in higher regard than the collective rights of the community. Much of American society is based upon the notion of the “rugged individualist,” where one person exerting the sheer force of will can shape and change the world around him or her. This concept has allowed countless men and women armed with ambition, an idea and an entrepreneurial spirit to build new companies, create medical breakthroughs and offer a better world – complete with microwave ovens, Post-It notes and air conditioning.

Even our roads and cities are based on individualistic constructs. The automobile is the personal transportation device that allows a person to go from one strip shopping center to the next without having to rely on the slow and undesirable “mass” transportation systems. Why are mass transit systems so undesirable to so many Americans who love to drive their gas-guzzling SUVs? Because taking a public bus takes control away from the individual and forces them to rely on the bus or train schedule of the masses. So what is the answer for individual privacy in a post-September 11 America when even the FBI has the power to investigate the phone records of the Senate Committee on Intelligence for possible national security leaks?

Perhaps it’s a balance of power between the branches of government: the FBI keeping a watch on the Legislative Branch while the Department of Justice keeps the FBI’s new Patriot Act powers in check. Perhaps it’s the freedom for writers like me to share thoughts that may be unflattering to the government without fear of ungrounded retribution, and perhaps it’s the interest of readers like you who vote for our elected government representatives who in turn make laws, appoint judges and manage our law enforcement officials. I think the answer lies not in any of the extremes, but in a careful balance between them all.

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