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Everybody's watching

How do you defend privacy in a world were people like to be watched?

August 02, 2009|Judith Lewis | Lewis is a writer in Los Angeles.

Three years before Sept. 11, 2001, I attended the eighth annual Computers, Freedom & Privacy Conference in Austin, Texas, and listened to Don Haines of the American Civil Liberties Union give a lunchtime talk called "Is Big Brother Watching You?"

Thanks to scanning devices on toll roads and closed-circuit cameras on city streets, Haines warned, authorities would soon amass enough information to find out where we were, how fast we were moving and who walked or rode with us at any time of day. He showed how simple it was to obtain a wiretap warrant, and he noted that the courts rarely said no. His tone was ominous: The Panopticon world of perpetual surveillance and suppression that George Orwell and Aldous Huxley had foretold was near.

There was only one problem with Haines' presentation: He could not explain how surveillance would do us in. From where I sat, surveillance worked on behalf of people against authority, not the other way around. The 1991 police beating of Rodney King had been captured on home video; that same year, a security camera showed that liquor store owner Soon Ja Du had fatally shot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back. So what if we breeze through camera-monitored toll plazas and stroll sidewalks policed by electronic eyes? As long as we're not doing anything wrong, the electronic witness can only help us.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, August 06, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
'The Peep Diaries': In a review of Hal Niedzviecki's book "The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors" in Sunday's Arts & Books section, the last name of privacy expert Phil Zimmermann was misspelled as Zimmerman.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 09, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
'The Peep Diaries': In last Sunday's book review of Hal Niedzviecki's "The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors," the last name of privacy expert Phil Zimmermann was misspelled as Zimmerman.

These days, civil libertarians have even higher hurdles to clear. Not only have lingering post-Sept. 11 fears softened our objections to surveillance, but computers have also warmly ushered the all-seeing eye into every fragment of our lives. From the shoes we buy to the calls we make to the gallons of water we squander in our homes, our every habit is tracked, recorded and potentially monitored; our random thoughts are offered up on social networks and blogs.

This is the culture that social critic Hal Niedzviecki examines in "The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors" (City Lights: 296 pp., $17.95 paper). Like so many before him, Niedzviecki suspects there's something wrong with all this spying, but he can't put his finger on what it is.

He is distressed that civic surveillance projects are popular with hipsters in his home city of Toronto; he is bewildered by the housewife who blogs about her sex life. He launches a number of experiments, all ending in disappointment: His blog attracts few readers; spying on his wife proves exhausting; and while his Facebook page brings him some 700 friends, only one shows up to meet him for a drink. From this, Niedzviecki concludes that we are "increasingly alone on a crowded planet," despite our tell-all ways.

Niedzviecki comes off as a social networking neophyte, a wide-eyed Rumpelstiltskin who has stumbled into a brave new world that he cutely dubs "Peep." He struggles with a question that has stumped far more sophisticated observers: How do you defend privacy in a world were people like to be watched?

In his 1998 book "The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?," David Brin notes that when hundreds of thousands of closed-circuit surveillance cameras were installed throughout Britain in the 1990s, they met with nearly unanimous public approval.

No surprise here: After the first such installation, in the town of King's Lynn, "the resulting reduction in street crime exceeded all expectations." More startling is how blithely people embrace surveillance that reaches into our personal files. In 2006, the Washington Post found that 54% of people surveyed thought the Bush administration's wiretapping program was an acceptable way to hunt down terrorists; 66% said they wouldn't mind the government looking into their phone records as long as there was a good reason.

Here we see what makes information-sharing so risky: More than half of us have become so inured to surveillance that we fail to recognize warrantless wiretapping as a criminal invasion of privacy. For many, the logic is likely: Surveillance is used to catch criminals and terrorists. I am neither a criminal nor a terrorist. Therefore I have nothing to fear.

But what about people who aren't committing crimes, just acting outside the bounds of propriety? In his eloquent 2000 book "The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America," George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen cautions that every human has a shadow side that needs expression in a place empty of judging eyes. We may break the law in trivial ways; we may do shameful, hurtful things that make it difficult to get a job or to stay married. If our secrets emerge without context, we may be branded pariahs for life.

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