Decent respect for the secrets of mankind

'An American has no sense of privacy," wrote George Bernard Shaw when I was 7 years old. Would the celebrated sage now think we're going too far in the other direction?

I had barely caught up with pay-phone advice - don't let bystanders see you punch in your calling card number - when everyone began trying to protect my thrilling personal data.

For the moment, let's skip to WPISP (try to whisper it) - that's Working Party on Information Security and Privacy - for the invasive technology that's prompting warnings to save the privacy of my genes and, oh boy, my brain.

"Everybody's worried about genetic privacy, but brain privacy is actually much more interesting," neuroscientist Steven E. Hyman, Harvard University's provost, told the Boston Globe the other day.

Still, I never used to worry when someone said, "Let me pick your brain." And I'm not starting now.

We're all glad for guardians against misuse of information from any source. But forgive me for thinking of brains at Harvard in a different way. Take the night there a decade ago when performance artist Laurie Anderson said she'd had a brain scan photographed by Annie Leibovitz and wondered if we knew what brains looked like. Cutlets. I paraphrase from memory - she may have said pork chops. Whatever. I can't get worked up about cutlet confidentiality in the age of privacy fatigue.

Am I the only one on the Internet having to click through windows that pop up, blocking the way, to say I'm leaving or entering a secure area? Am I the only one getting endless privacy statements from companies meeting their legal obligations, but leaving me to judge?

Well, my judgment is that privacy could risk death by lip service. Yes, let's pursue the necessary laws and regulations. But privacy's real shield is a decent respect for the secrets of mankind.

Which gets back, sort of, to WPISP which was formed by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) in 2001.

This is part of a process going all the way back to the Guidelines Governing the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data (1980). Then came the Ministerial Declaration on the Protection of Privacy on Global Networks (1998) and now OECD Guidelines for the Security of Information Systems and Networks (2002).

The latter's subtitle is "Towards a Culture of Security." But I want more than a "culture of security," a phrase now heard on the American speech and conference scene.

"Efforts to enhance the security of information systems and networks should be consistent with the values of a democratic society," says the OECD document, "particularly the need for an open and free flow of information and basic concerns for personal privacy."

If a democratic society honors privacy, let's not throw democracy out with the brain scans.

A culture of security, brrr, is one thing. But, sue me, OECD; the security of a culture is my thing.

Roderick Nordell is a former editor at the Monitor.

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