Take My Privacy, Please

Hey, want to have an instant best-seller? Write a book about the loss of privacy in the Information Age. Want to sell newspapers? Run a headline about how the evil Software Conspiracy tracks our every move. Movie? Novel? Party conversation? With high-tech surveillance, you've got yourself a winning theme.

I don't dispute that some tracking is going on. Our phone calls, credit card transactions, and plane reservations have been recorded on some computer somewhere, for years. No, what I'd like to know is, what--in practical, nonhysterical terms--is wrong with this kind of data collection? Reporters, moviemakers, and publishers have glommed on to the invasion-of-privacy thing because it sells, but the thinking never seems to go much further than They're watching you.

So, aside from our visceral negative reactions, what's the downside? The few possibilities I've come across revolve around these arguments:

• We'll be targeted by marketers. If you visit Amazon.com, you're greeted by ads for books in categories you've bought from recently. When you do a search for car information on Yahoo, the results page may offer a car ad at the top of the screen. The writing is on the wall: Pretty soon, they'll send us ads targeting our interests!

And the problem is . . . ? I say, bring it on! If I have to look at advertising, why not see ads for products that interest me, for heaven's sake? My interests are Macs, gadgets, Broadway musicals, magic, tennis, books, kids--let the targeting begin!

No, our problem is that not enough ads are aimed at specific audiences. When companies spend millions to show me ads for SUVs and adult diapers, they're wasting their dollars and my time.

• We'll be caught. Nobody wants to get caught being naughty. People hate the thought that their criminal, extramarital, or pornographic interests might one day come to light.

In my book, that's a pretty flimsy reason for championing privacy. If you want only to cover up violations of the law--moral, marital, or other--your problem isn't the threat of losing privacy; it's living in a society that has laws and a conscience.

• Our information will be made public someday. No doubt about it: life as a political candidate or celebrity is no picnic. Thanks to massive databases that shadow our every life event, public officials are open to scrutiny by every reporter and opponent.

On the other hand, aren't we better off knowing about Richard Nixon's deception, Gary Hart's affair, Bill Clinton's draft dodge? Whether you're a supporter or an opponent, knowing is better than not knowing.

• It's just creepy. It is creepy to think that someone is watching us. It makes us nervous, fuels dramatic opinion columns, and keeps the producers of Big Brother from using the TV camera over the toilet.

But scary-sounding high-tech paranoia schemes have been foisted upon us before, and they almost never pan out. Remember the Y2K bug? There were people digging bomb shelters in Montana, for heaven's sake, and a lot of publishers got rich on what turned out to be a marketing scam, for all practical purposes. So far, the theft-of-privacy threat remains mostly in the realm of the theoretical and the someday.

I'm not claiming that there are no downsides to living in a database nation. Junk e-mail, for example, is a true annoyance.

Nor do I need reminders of the real, if isolated, tragedies caused by the abuse of personal information: the credit-report error that haunts someone for years, the wife beater who tracks down his ex-spouse's new address, or the AIDS patient who's denied a job because of medical records. These stories are genuinely upsetting.

But there are costs to fearmongering, too. I know people who have turned off their browsers' cookies (preference files for Web sites) out of paranoia--and who therefore have to type out convoluted user IDs and access codes with every visit to a restricted site. Thousands of people refuse to buy anything online--never mind that their credit card numbers are at infinitely greater risk of being stolen at a gas station or restaurant. I know a guy who pays for everything at stores, in cash, for fear of giving any private information to anyone. But take it from someone whose credit card company refunds 2 percent of his annual purchases: that kind of paranoia can cost you.

Look, I don't want Big Business to invade every corner of our lives. I'll back any law against sending spam, sharing medical records, or collecting our personal data without telling us. My issue is with the marketing of privacy hysteria. There are different ways to lose your privacy--and not all are scary.

DAVID POGUE ( http://www.davidpogue.com ) is a coauthor of the forthcoming Piloting Palm, the story of Palm Computing (O'Reilly).

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