Will privacy become as extinct as the dodo?

Across the country this spring, mailboxes have been filling with plain white envelopes bearing a solemn heading that reads: "Important Privacy Notice."

Inside, leaflets and brochures, sent by banks, stores, and credit-card companies, deliver a dual message. On the one hand, they say, Trust us. We're good guys. We care about protecting your privacy. At the same time, they explain all the ways in which they're entitled to use and share highly personal details of customers' lives.

Devoid of color or graphics and written in bland, just-the-facts-ma'am prose, these leaflets drone on about "nonpublic personal finance" and "nonexperience information." Huh? But rest assured. It's possible, they tell us, to "opt out" of information-sharing if we wish.

For most recipients, these privacy policies are the latest form of glance-and-toss junk mail. So much fine print, so little time.

But for those who take time to read - or at least skim - them, they serve as a sobering reminder of just how deeply the information age has invaded nearly every aspect of our lives.

The message between the lines is: Big Brother is watching you - and listening and recording and sharing.

What a far cry from the innocent days when the biggest privacy issue for some of us might have been keeping a nosy sibling from finding the key to a teenage diary. Today, life is becoming an open book for nearly everyone.

Still, all may not be lost. Writing in the March issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Toby Lester offers a measure of good news. He counters the dire predictions that new surveillance and information-gathering technologies spell the end of privacy. A booming market for privacy-protection products and services, he says, will lead to an entirely new sector of the economy, called "the privacy space."

Privacy-lovers can only hope Mr. Lester is right.

Yet a strange contradiction exists. We worry - rightly - about losing control of personal information in everything from our finances to our health to our DNA. But our privacy is vanishing in other ways as well - sometimes involuntarily, other times voluntarily.

Consider the young Princeton graduate who arrived in Seoul earlier this month to begin a job with a private equity firm, the Carlyle Group. In his third day on the job, he sent an e-mail to 11 of his nearest and dearest colleagues at Merrill Lynch in New York, where he formerly worked, boasting about his sexual conquests and lavish lifestyle.

Finding the message too irresistible to keep to themselves, some recipients forwarded it to others. The e-mail quickly circled the globe, and the devastated boaster lost his job. Moral of the story: Privacy is a fragile commodity on the Internet.

It's also an elusive ideal in some offices. Cubicles, the business furniture of choice for several decades, offer a measure of visual privacy. But audio privacy? Forget it. The assumption goes that no worker ever needs to make a private phone call or think quietly about a project at hand.

As teamwork has become the new corporate mantra, even some executives are losing offices with doors that close. The 21st-century corporate solution to privacy? Not walls, but white-noise machines, emitting a steady hum to blur the sound of other voices.

For workers in telemarketing offices and reservation call centers, privacy is vanishing in other ways. Every second of their workday - every keystroke on the computer, every minute on the telephone, every moment away from the desk - can be monitored.

Then there is that other privacy-stealer, the ubiquitous cellphone.

Remember when phone booths came with a folding door that closed, offering blessed conversation alone? Those metamorphosed into open-air banks of telephones, which in turn may become obsolete as cellphone users take over the world. Whatever private messages callers are shouting - "I love you" or "I just lost my job" or "I'll be home at 7" - bystanders, like it or not, become parties to the conversation.

Similarly, in an age of tell-all journalism, no secrets are too lurid or private to keep under wraps. Whether the subject is the first family in the White House or the royal family in Buckingham Palace, reporters bare the most intimate details of the lives of political leaders and royalty, as a gossip-hungry public eagerly waits for more.

Discretion may still be the better part of valor, but discretion and privacy don't sell newspapers, magazines, or books.

Equally intriguing are the growing ranks of celebrities and others who gladly surrender their own privacy. In the best Greta Garbo tradition, they signal that they want to be alone. Some surround their property with privacy fences. Others live in gated communities, adopting a pull-up-the-drawbridge mentality.

But point a camera or a microphone in their general direction, and presto! They become garrulous, happily spilling the most intimate details of their lives to millions of viewers or listeners. Many insist, loudly and proudly, that they are really a Very Private Person. Until, that is, they write a bare-all memoir and become a Very Public Person.

Autographs, anyone?

As privacy rapidly becomes an old-fashioned word, a quaint concept, an endangered species, those unassuming little "privacy notices" in mailboxes could serve as a call to action, a reminder that not everything is intended for public consumption.

If Toby Lester is right, privacy might even stage a comeback. After all, who can argue against discretion, dignity, and even a little mystery in people's lives?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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