Alaska Notebook: Privacy? Good luck

Privacy? Good luck

There's an old principle of journalism that applies to the current debate about the NSA's spying reach and the erosion of American privacy:

"If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

That's a healthy attitude to have toward the federal government's claims that its vast reach into our individual communications, commerce and even up-to-the-minute location is done with safeguards and with no real invasion of our privacy without reasonable cause.

That's also a healthy attitude to have toward the increasing routine loss of privacy in the private sector, where exponential leaps in the power of technology to serve data mining, demographics and the age-old pursuit of a buck has millions of us profiled.

As one of the members of our guest editorial board pointed out, the government's reach is more troublesome because it comes with far less choice. On the private sector side, you can protect privacy by refusing to use a store or credit card or paying cash. But even those choices come with costs of convenience and/or loss of discounts. There's pressure to pony up your vital stats because it makes your daily life a little easier, even as it makes your life less private.

Anonymity was once the default status of the ordinary consumer. You expected to tell about yourself to get a loan or apply for a job, but not in day-to-day transactions. Now if you want anonymity, you have to work and pay for it. Maybe a dozen times I've gone online to check out some calculation about insurance, credit, car prices, etc., only to stop the process when I thought, "OK, now they're asking for too much information."

One school of thought has it that the explosion of information about most of us that circulates in cyberspace is no big deal -- if everyone loses privacy, it's the same as if nobody does.

That doesn't quite wash. Maybe that's because the technological reach is strong enough now not just to discover demand, but increasingly to create it -- and in the process create a dependence. Creating demand rather than simply meeting it is a game as old as trade, but now the players with the goods are holding more cards -- and they know more and more about our hands too.

I come back to another old maxim -- "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." Looks like the price of privacy, too.

-- Frank Gerjevic