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Privacy vs. the 'bling ring'

November 17, 2009

A man's home may be his castle, but few of us -- even celebrities -- have moats these days to protect our privacy. That was true long before the "bling ring" allegedly used the Internet to case the cribs of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. Nor did thieves have to wait for the invention of Google maps to reconnoiter neighborhoods in search of easily accessible homes.

That's worth remembering if, as we fear, some legislator decides that a law should be passed to prevent Internet surfers from looking at houses they easily could scope out from the sidewalk. Although we agree with Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Pat Gannon that the online dissemination of personal information, including the location and size of one's home, can be frightening, there's nothing new about it. Passersby have always been able to stroll by a house and study the height of its window sills, and Hollywood royalty has long had to cope with gawkers outfitted with maps of the stars' homes. Unless you've imprisoned yourself in a gated community, the exterior of your house is fair visual game, as it always has been. A law against photographing a home or what occurs outside it in plain sight -- or disseminating the images to others -- would be overreaching, not to mention unconstitutional.

But that's the easy part. The harder question is what to do as technology becomes even more invasive. Already, Google allows our neighbors to look at satellite snapshots of our backyards -- places that passersby cannot easily see and where we have always had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Can there be any doubt that in the years ahead, these will be moving images shown in real time? Surely it's not long before a satellite is capable of zooming in on a nude sunbather inside his or her own fenced backyard.

As technology evolves, even the long-standing legal distinction between what goes on inside and outside one's house may become blurred. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that a federal agent violated the rights of an Oregon man when, without a warrant, he aimed a thermal imager at the man's house. The device detected a level of heat consistent with lamps used in growing marijuana. That, wrote Justice Antonin Scalia, violated the "firm line" drawn by the 4th Amendment at the entrance to a house. But will that line hold as new gadgets proliferate?

So traditional notions of privacy may be on a collision course with advances in technology. But the bling ring isn't the point of impact.

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