Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Privacy is like a hammer--"You can use it to fix something, or you can use it to give somebody a big bang on the head."

What does the average American think of surveillance? Chronicle Arts and Culture Critic Steven Winn pondered this question last week.

Electronic surveillance destroys our privacy, but few seem to mind:

And how do members of the public react to all this unsought attention? In most cases, they either take it for granted or feel reassured. To a considerable extent, whether through willing acquiescence or willful innocence, people seem surprisingly ready to accept what would have been seen, not so long ago, as alarming invasions of privacy. Indeed, in an age that empowers anyone with a cell phone camera and an Internet connection, we're all free to participate in this surge of information gathering and revelation. All of us can be spied on and engage in some high-visibility spying of our own.

The New York Times News Blog poses the same question to its readers.

But what of corporate surveillance?

A number of privacy experts believe that the real concerns lie less in the public sphere than they do in the largely unregulated environs of commerce.

"It's a simple fact that private companies can collect information about people in ways the government can't," Robert O'Harrow Jr. wrote in his 2005 book "No Place to Hide." "At the same time, they can't be held accountable for their behavior or their mistakes the way government agencies can."

How do people reclaim their privacy?

What's strikingly distinct about privacy in the digital age is not only the thoroughness with which it can be penetrated, but the ease of sharing that information widely. In an odd but somehow perversely logical reaction, self-revelatory tools like YouTube and MySpace have flourished. It's as if people were seizing control of their own privacy and serving it up to the public before anyone can seize it away from them. Gandy labels the trend "counter-exhibitionism, since there's no privacy left."

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