Where do we draw the line?

Americans are uncertain if they want full privacy. Many accept cameras on the street, but what about neighbors spying on them?

Here's a talking point for your next debate about privacy: What if no absolute right to privacy exists because we don't really want one?

Scholar Alan Westin once observed that "the individual's desire for privacy is never absolute, since participation in society is an equally powerful desire."

That statement from his 1967 book, "Privacy and Freedom," was written long before reality TV shows proved his point. But the observation is worth thinking about as the line between the public and private persona is increasingly blurred for everyone.

Newspapers and pop culture are full of reminders that privacy issues are pressing on Americans like a persistent telemarketer – asking them to consider where they end and society begins.

• To fight the war on terrorism, the government is proposing a data-collection system where citizens, such as repairmen, report any suspicious activity they observe while on the job.

• The Monitor reported earlier this week on a retirement complex in Wilmington, N.C., where residents can watch feeds from the building's security cameras on their TV sets.

• Last month, the Supreme Court approved random drug testing of public-school children who participate in extracurricular activities to help curb abuse.

• Moviemakers are provoking more thought, too. "Minority Report" features outdoor ads that scan your retina and pitch you products as you walk by. Not only do you give up your anonymity in this futuristic vision, but clairvoyants see crimes before they are committed and help the police arrest potential criminals.

If that seems far-fetched, consider this: The cover story in the July issue of PC Magazine includes talk of new software that aims to determine the likelihood of employees committing crimes or becoming violent by analyzing words and phrases they use.

We want privacy – but how much?

In simpler times, monitoring your privacy meant pulling down the shades at night. But today it's an idea – a value, actually – that permeates everything from e-mail to grocery shopping to airport security. The majority of Americans, ambivalent about the issue even a decade ago, now overwhelmingly say it matters to them.

The growth of the Internet is fueling some of the interest. But so is the gathering and sharing of information for medical purposes and fighting crime.

Legislators are responding to the heightened awareness of their constituents by trying to set rules that will govern privacy.

"The pace of legislation has accelerated in the last decade and it continues to accelerate," says Robert Gellman, a privacy consultant. "There are dozens and dozens of bills before Congress and the states."

Not all of those will make it into law, but they suggest a struggle to define what privacy is and how much of it people want.

In many ways, Americans have been trying to figure that out since the Founding Fathers first put pen to paper. American and English society saw a use for laws about privacy long before the Bill of Rights was created. The framers acknowledged privacy in the Constitution, but not as an explicit right, leaving the courts to interpret how much of it should be extended to citizens in modern times.

But today, privacy concerns go beyond government intrusiveness. James Madison likely never envisioned a time when an employer could potentially use a person's DNA to determine if they should be hired based on their future health.

And yet, Americans still seem to be sorting out how private they want to be: They are willing to be searched at the airport to fly safely, but keep marketers at bay who want their personal information. They are willing to be followed around by cameras for entertainment, but are still getting used to the idea of cameras catching them running red lights. They are willing to buy things online or order from catalogs, but don't want that information sold to solicitors.

Much of the discussion about privacy has to do with tensions – often between those who control the information and those who don't.

Consumers often see protecting privacy as something they can't count on others to do for them, but that they must do for themselves – through unlisted phone numbers, caller ID, and even encryption technology that protects their electronic information.

"When it comes to protecting your privacy you are on your own," says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, an advocacy group in San Diego. She also notes as many experts do, that "the desire for privacy is highly situational."

If Mr. Westin is right, then, people just choose the level of privacy they are comfortable with and go on with their lives.

Many ways of practicing the same right

But it is precisely because people are comfortable with so many different levels of privacy that political scientist Priscilla Regan suggests there needs to be a clear societal value assigned to it. She sees something akin to freedom of religion – which is a right generally agreed upon by society, like the right to privacy.

If privacy isn't assigned a value, it's more difficult for legislators to weigh its importance, she suggests.

"We do tend to look at it more as an individual value. So if it comes into conflict with, or needs to be balanced against some other value that clearly has more collective importance, it tends to be treated with less value. It's always fighting for a position," says Regan, author of "Legislating Privacy" (1995).

Others nuance that idea, suggesting, in an echo of Westin's dueling-desire idea, that individual privacy and societal needs should be equally balanced.

In his 1999 book "The Limits of Privacy," sociologist Amitai Etzioni argues that too much emphasis has been placed on individual rights. US society is built on principles that support that idea, of course. But Mr. Etzioni suggests a different concept of privacy is needed, one that "puts privacy on equal standing with the common good without privileging either value."

His litmus test post 9/11 is straightforward: "If you have a major safety gain and a minor violation of privacy, such as if you could stop terrorism by reading the e-mail of non-Americans, let's say, I would say that's a good trade off," he says in an interview.

But Americans should not be expected to give up privacy to the private sector, he says. As he and others note, there's no Constitution to protect them there.

What experts advise moving forward is vigilance. Sharing information but asking questions of the people who want it – why they need it and what they are going to do with it. That way, says Ms. Givens, "We can have some modicum of privacy, while at the same time being highly involved in society."

That's what Westin says people want in the first place. But as technology presses on, the question remains whether one desire will outweigh the other.

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