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Our Views: Private lives go public

Feel like someone is watching you? They usually are, but it’s often by our choosing

POSTED: August 3, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Personal privacy these days almost seems like an antiquated notion from a bygone era, like AM radio, whitewall tires and wide lapels.

In our ever-interconnected world, we carry in our pockets or purses devices that open the world up at the touch of a button: News, email, maps, anything we need at any time of the day, wherever we roam.

But that convenience comes at a price. By having the world at our fingertips, it also means the world has its eyes and ears on us. This high-tech link we have created is a double-edged sword.

Try to hide; you can’t. Go shopping and surveillance cameras watch your every move. Go online and your browsing habits are tracked and cookies dumped on your hard drive to log your likes and dislikes, popping up ads for products you’ve searched for on sites you visit.

We hardly can make a move without being watched somehow, by someone. Recently, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed boasted that his city’s surveillance cameras by 2050 will be able to track any individual 80 percent of the time. The aim there is crime prevention, but the prying eyes of city government will leave some uneasy.

We saw how government can abuse personal communications when it was revealed last year the National Security Agency was monitoring Americans’ phone calls in an effort to sniff out embedded terrorists. Though officials denied our personal chats were being overheard, the capability to do so is there, and oversight of the program was iffy at best.

Certainly fears of a “Big Brother” society of government watchers from the novel “1984” is troubling and should be kept on a tight leash. But to be honest, most of the breaches of personal privacy we endure are voluntary, motivated by commerce, convenience and an overwhelming desire to share our lives with the world at large.

Social media was devised for the latter goal, a way to connect with friends and family near and far beyond a long-distance phone call (there’s another archaic notion). It’s wonderful to share graduation photos with grandma or vacation snapshots with Uncle Jim thousands of miles away without a stamp, putting life’s milestones in the spotlight. It’s also handy to have your resume endorsed by colleagues on professional sites such as Linked-In.

But there are trade-offs in exposing our personal lives to the world, even when we take precautions and monitor settings.

One cost is the threat of identity theft. It’s the new crime of choice for savvy thieves who find it easier to hack into someone’s accounts or computers and steal financial information than take a crowbar to a window. It’s hard to safeguard and sometimes difficult to trace, forcing us to load computers with anti-virus and anti-malware programs. But those bars on the window can be sawed through, and many crooks get away with it despite diligent efforts to thwart them.

A report from Javelin Strategy & Research show the number of identity fraud victims jumped to 13.1 million in 2013, up half a million from 2012, and that an American is victimized every 2 seconds. Such was the case during the last Christmas shopping season when databases for giant retailers Target and Neiman Marcus were compromised and thousands of individual accounts accessed.

Another downside of life in cyberspace is exposing ourselves to embarrassment through online posts. Some have lost jobs or been denied employment due to indiscreet social media photos or comments. Elected officials, teachers and journalists are among those who must filter their thoughts carefully before they hit “post,” lest it come back to bite them. Many have failed to do so and been shamed by such exposure.

Much of this we create through a willingness to open up private lives to everyone. This is the era of the “selfie,” photos of ourselves shot by ourselves and posted for public view, and also of “sexting” sexually intimate thoughts and photos. We apparently have a deep-seated human desire to share what we’re doing, eating, drinking and thinking. Much of it is harmless, but we need to stay aware of its dark side.

While the younger generation raised in this environment likely takes it all in stride, there are some high-tech advances they may not welcome. One is GPS technology that allows parents to know where their kids are at all times through their cellphone links. That electronic “umbilical cord” takes the cribside baby monitor well past adolescence. While safety is again the motivation, it conditions young people to be under watchful eyes, and it’s a short leap from there to “Big Brother.”

And in today’s paper (page 1A), we tell of a practice in which college students taking online exams are linked to remote “proctors” watching them via their computers and webcams, scanning the room for any signs of cheating and able to see what is on their computer screens.

While this invasion is necessary to ensure an exam is taken fairly, students may have no idea who is on the other end of a connection scanning their dorm rooms or checking out what they’re wearing. Yes, it’s voluntary to a degree, but the word that comes to mind for it is “creepy” nevertheless.

Perhaps the idea of being watched 24/7 by someone or everyone may not bother those who have grown up in a society less private than it used to be. Yet this door, once cracked open, allows more unwanted intrusion into our lives and bank accounts, and we need to stay aware. Sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are wonderful tools, but they should enhance lives, not make us slaves to a constant stream of navel-gazing.

Putting this Pandora’s nightmare back in its factory-sealed box is not realistic, but as individuals we still can keep closer tabs on what information we leak to everyone around us. After all, there’s nothing wrong with maintaining a little mystery and mystique in our lives.


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