PORTLAND, ORE. — I checked my e-mail recently, and found a message titled "Find out anything about anybody!" For a moment, I wondered if the Echelon surveillance system was placing its services online. In case you missed the recent news about Echelon, it's a multinational network of satellites and listening posts supposedly intercepting and scanning cellphone calls, e-mail, and faxes for links to criminal or terrorist activities.
As a society, we're obviously conflicted on this issue.
"Mind your own business" has always been a strong American tradition. It was even stamped on a coin once. But equally compelling these days is the fantasy of getting rich and being a TV star, both of which may be accomplished by letting some producer wire your home with cameras and beam the intimate details of your life to a nationwide audience. It's a tough choice, but I think lots of people would take the celebrity option.
The entertainment industry also promotes a wide range of ideas about what privacy really means. Many reporters described the wedding of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt as a private ceremony. Granted, it wasn't held in the Rose Bowl, but a fleet of stretch limousines and fireworks that rivaled the Bicentennial made the nuptials about as private as Saddam's invasion of Kuwait.
Progress is never risk-free. Joining the wired society requires a few trade-offs. You can't plug into a system that strives for immediate access to everything 24 hours a day, and expect to remain totally anonymous.
In my own case, I've decided the amount of proprietary information is so small that I'm better off subscribing to a policy of full disclosure in almost every aspect of daily life. It doesn't bother me when video monitors record my presence in the bank, or Taco Bell (now there's a dark secret - can I help it if everyone in my household loves Mexi-melts?).
I've also found that people who maintain reclusive lifestyles are easily victimized by rumors and paranoia. Some neighbors recently told me their mail had been stolen. "Look," the husband said, "they even put other letters in our box as a diversion."
"Well," I replied, examining the envelopes, "these are addressed to the people across the street from you. I think the postal carrier just made a mistake." It turned out the agitated couple had never talked to the people across the street and didn't know the name of our letter carrier, but they were certain a crime had occurred. I ended up taking the letters to the proper recipients. The "victims" went home and put a lock on their mailbox.
Call me the happy fool, but I'm not losing sleep worrying that agents of Echelon might be intercepting my online communications. Some private opinions might be tough to explain, especially my long-standing affection for the music of REO Speedwagon and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. But most of my friends know about these little skeletons in the closet. And they've already forgiven me.
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