The myth of privacy invasion

Members of Congress are returning to Capitol Hill, having assessed what's on voters' minds. They may have found that privacy ranks much lower among the public's concerns than the chattering classes report. And for good reasons.

Commentators have kept up a drumbeat about ever-rising threats to privacy. In Tampa, Fla., the police are reported to feed mug shots of crime suspects into computers connected to cameras that scan the faces of people in the street. Dick Armey, House majority leader, railed against cameras introduced to catch red-light runners. New police flashlights measure the alcohol on one's breath. New software from Microsoft and AOL is said to pose new threats to privacy.

Little wonder one of the new clichés is that privacy is at the same spot on the public learning - and alarm - curve as the environment was in the 1960s. And there are plenty of volunteers to don the Rachel Carson mantle and do for privacy what she did for nature in her book "Silent Spring." At least half a dozen books bemoan the death of privacy and the arrival of Big Brother. And a bunch of privacy advocacy groups keep filing legal cases against both public and private intruders.

Moreover, it is possible to find US public opinion polls that support the thesis that privacy is an endangered species. For instance, when asked if they fear loss of personal privacy by government use of the Internet and other technologies, more than half of all respondents (53 percent) said they were extremely concerned, according to a Hart-Teeter poll; another third were quite concerned. Only 1 out of 8 was not losing any sleep about such a loss.

Similarly, when asked if they wanted stronger laws to protect privacy, the majority said, in effect, "by all means." Note, however, that these are cost-free questions. It is like asking if you want more fresh air, good movies, or better government - with no additional effort or expenditure on your part. The only surprise here is that anybody demurs.

But when it comes to "paying" anything for gaining more privacy, Americans reveal how strongly they really feel about alleged privacy violations. Asked if they bothered to check the privacy policy of a health or medical website they'd visited, only 1 out of 4 claimed they did. This is despite the fact that medical privacy concerns the most personal information of all. To gain a small discount, roughly 80 percent of Americans declared themselves willing and ready to divulge personal information. Asked if they would support new privacy protections if they hindered investigative journalism, the public clamor for more privacy quieted down substantially. John Schwartz just reported in The New York Times that companies that sell privacy-protecting software have a hard time finding a market.

In addition, when Americans are asked to rank privacy among other things they care about, in numerous polls they do not rank it particularly high. Reforming Medicare and introducing gun control typically rank higher.

The leading privacy researcher, Alan Westin, reviewed numerous findings and concluded that about 1 in 4 Americans is what he calls a "privacy fundamentalist" - truly agitated about it. Two-thirds of the public are what he calls "privacy pragmatics" who look at the costs and benefits involved - as they do in most other things. (The rest cannot be bothered.)

Privacy is one more area in which the public is well ahead of the crisis-mongering pundits. While President Bush nullified, deferred, opened for renegotiation, or diluted practically all of the laws and regulations President Clinton introduced in his last year in office, Mr. Bush did let stand an extensive new set of regulations that protect medical privacy.

People may well realize that for the first time in American history, this crucial form of privacy now has full-blown federal backing, rather than depending on a wild assortment of divergent state laws. The same holds for brand new regulations protecting financial privacy and that of children age 13 and younger. The simple fact is that we have more laws and regulations to protect privacy than we had, not only since the privacy panic started, but since the right to privacy became part of the Constitution.

And while alarms are sounded daily about new technologies that intrude, the public seems to be aware that there are all kinds of new devices that protect privacy better than it ever has been protected. This may sound like the ultimate Pollyanna-ish statement until you realize, for example, that high-powered encryption is now routinely built into new computers. As a result, communications sent via e-mail are much more secure and private than those sent by snail mail (which anyone who can get to your mailbox can read) or transmitted over phone lines (easily tapped, compared with encrypted e-mail) - not to mention faxes. The same holds for storing information. Despite all the limitations of passwords, I would rather have my medical records protected by them than locked in a filing cabinet. And audit trails, routinely used by hospitals and financial institutions, allow one to determine if any unauthorized party has accessed the data - a trick no paper record could accomplish.

The proof of my thesis - that reports that privacy is dying, and that the public is worked up about it are vastly exaggerated - will come soon. Far from rushing to introduce new privacy protections, I predict, members of Congress will load their agendas with other goodies - such as more protection for the environment.

Amitai Etzioni is the author of 'The Limits of Privacy' (Basic Books, 1999) and teaches at George Washington University.

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