A google search on the word “privacy” produces approximately 1,540,000,000 hits. Among the top ten listed, most deal with privacy policies of various organizations. It would seem that the matter of privacy matters a great deal to people – but that it is an increasing elusive aspect of modern life.
A recent column in the Wall Street Journal illustrates the changing attitudes of Americans towards privacy. I have realized for years that my use of debit or credit cards, frequent buyers cards at various businesses, and other programs that record my purchases make it possible for someone to draw fairly accurate conclusions about my interests and preferences. It doesn’t bother me to think that someone could find out what books I read or what movies I watch. (After all, if they want to know they can read my blog!)
I’m not even terribly concerned about the idea of an electronic medical record that any healthcare provider could access in order to have full knowledge of my medical history. I’m sure there are good reasons for the provisions of HIPAA, and there are people who have more reason than I do to want to keep their medical information private. Considering the danger of identity theft, I’m glad that financial institutions take the steps they do to protect the privacy of my financial information, although I can’t say I’ve ever read through one of those privacy statements that I get every year for every account.
Where I am glad to have a reasonable amount of privacy is in the details of my personal life. Reading today’s news stories about Sarah Palin, I can’t imagine that level of scrutiny from political colleagues and opponents, the media, and everyone in the country (and perhaps the world) who has an opinion on the matter. (Though I would guess she wouldn’t have gotten as far as governor of Alaska without a reasonably thick skin and willingness to be in the public eye.)
There are things I have no trouble letting people know about. I tell about my son’s autism, I discuss my struggles with depression for most of my adult life, and on occasion if it is relevant to the topic at hand I might mention having been raped in my mid-20’s. In discussions of faith I admit to having doubts, and I acknowledge shortcomings in self-discipline (maintaining patterns in eating and exercise has always been a struggle, as well as being consistent in setting aside time for prayer and Bible reading).
But those are things I choose to tell about myself. I would find it very hard to deal with someone else trying to ferret out information about me, and particularly about relationships, present and past, with other people, as that would intrude not only on my privacy but on theirs. I suppose people in the public eye have always been subject to this scrutiny to some extent, but it seems to be so much more so in recent decades.
Perhaps in some ways it has good results. Public leaders need to be able to deal with some pretty tough opposition, and perhaps the process of dealing with this intense scrutiny prepares candidates for the stress of living in the public eye. Perhaps sometimes it discourages people of poor character from pursuing public office, knowing that their past missteps will be revealed.
But obviously there are still a lot of unscrupulous people in politics – these days the scandals seem neverending. So as a screening mechanism it’s not all that effective. And there are plenty of good people who don’t consider public office, even at the local level, because they know it will subject them and their families to not only revelations of what they have done, but often to unfounded rumors that are false but nearly impossible to actually disprove.
There’s a fascinationg science fiction story by Isaac Asimov, in which technological advances may have effectively demolished privacy, for all practical purposes. “Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone” is how one character puts it, at the close of the story. I hope that such a scenario remains forever in the realm of science fiction. Despite being sometimes (mis)used as a cover for wrongdoing, privacy does have its place.