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Diane Mufson: Privacy is gone; maybe it never existed

Jul. 09, 2013 @ 11:10 PM

We Americans have discovered that what we thought was our private business really isn't. Despite our fondness for sharing everything and anything about ourselves on Facebook and other electronic sources, we seem to be shocked to learn that various national agencies and businesses know much about us.

We were amazed to find out the National Security Administration (NSA) has access to all sorts of personal data and that it has been watching electronic communication patterns for some time. Revelations from WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden have floored many; we are afraid that "Big Brother" is watching us. Of course, he or she is. In this day and age, every country, democratic, communistic, dictatorial or otherwise, is doing just that.

My premise is that privacy is gone. Based on recent information and experiences and one very old incident, privacy probably hasn't existed for ages. The old event relates to my mother's message to "never sign a petition." My mother was a solid citizen. During World War II, she volunteered at an AFB Hospital to welcome home injured vets, was active in the Red Cross and was an Air Raid Warden. Later she became a PTA and Girl Scout leader.

In the early 1950s, during the height of the Communist witch hunts, my mother signed a petition for some type of improvement in our community. Shortly after that, two men with official IDs came to our house to "talk" with her. I never heard the conversation, but I witnessed the frightened expression on her face after they left and her persistent warning to me to "Never sign a petition." You'll never convince me that government spying is new.

These days advertisements on the Internet and from merchants are highly personalized. This is knowledge-based, not good guesses. Just recently I decided to handle some insurance information on line. First, I was required to answer some personalized questions.

From a multiple-choice format, I was to select one item in each group that applied only to me. Most items were reasonable, but I was stumped by one set, which asked the price my parents paid for their apartment in the early 1970s. I never knew the precise amount so the insurance company has family knowledge that I lack.

Someone is collecting data about every one of us who has a name, a birth certificate or a personal number. Hopefully it is the "good guys" who are amassing this information. In this day and age, when some people would readily do damage to our country and its citizens, I'm not distressed that our communication patterns are being observed. If there is nothing to hide, then openness is no problem.

I would much rather have our government listen to or track conversations about my grandchildren, movie preferences, weekend plans or what have you, than permit malicious people with violent agendas to create another Boston Marathon tragedy.

Employers screen applicants electronically, universities check students' work, our health records are mostly online and thankfully, those who want to abuse children via the Internet have found that their secret lives have been compromised. The stability of the world is no longer determined just by armies and weapons, but by knowledge and information.

We are not likely to be able to limit the amount of personal information about us floating through the universe and only special folks with unique connections can disappear from public view. It is naïve to deny that personal data collection is this century's destiny. If privacy ever existed, it no longer does.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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