SILICON LOUNGE: Should We Give Up Privacy?

Thanks to the Internet and several highly published cases of murders enabled by public information, the heat is on to assure that the Fourth Amendment privacy rights of citizens are safeguarded. I'm on record saying that I support legislation that would make it easy (and free) to opt out of allowing our drivers license information to be public, even closing it unless an individual enters the public sphere in another way such as by committing a crime. (Even then, we must consider the rights of the accused.)

But any support of any pro-privacy legislation (or even reporting) angers some journalists, as I learned at the recent Investigative Reporters & Editor convention. I see their point: the recent, very public discussion about privacy protection can easily provide a cover for governments to close more information and violate freedom-of-information laws, perhaps even garnering them enough support to gut necessary "sunshine" laws. As someone who often has wrangled with self-important bureaucratic bozos who forget who they're working for, I fully realize that any excuse to demonize the media for asking important questions will be seized upon. Of course, talk is cheap, and no serious journalist expects to be particularly well-liked -- but public servants may then use that public distrust to cover their own tracks and misdeeds. That’s a problem.

Thus, some journalists are on the offensive, even writing in their trade publications about how news outlets should not run "fearmongering" stories about criminals who stalk their victims, such as the murdered actress Rebecca Schaefer, after getting their address from a public database. "Frequently, the media does me more harm than any legislator has ever done," Barbara Petersen of Florida's First Amendment Foundation told Quill, the magazine of the Society for Professional Journalists (May 1999).

But the either-or nature of this debate terrifies me. It's not us vs. them. I heard mutterings at the recent IRE conference that journalists should not even do any stories outlining the privacy dangers posed by the Internet and mailing-list profiteering. That is going too far. Society should not censor hate-mongering Web sites just because some people believe they might pose a threat some day; likewise, journalists should not censor stories about privacy that expose the dangers of high-tech information dissemination. Bottom line: People should know how easy it can be to locate their personal address so they can take measures to protect their privacy and safety -- whether by using a post-office box or supporting pro-privacy legislation.

At the IRE meeting, a New York Daily News editor said, "Get over it," adding that we don't have any privacy in this Information Age (eerily echoing the words of Sun Microsystem's Scott McNeely and other tech titans with a vested interest in personal-data trafficking). I am a journalist; I am also a citizen who values my privacy. I cannot buy that Americans have no right to privacy just because we have the tools to throw information around indiscriminately.

Some journalists remind me of NRA paranoids on this issue: Give 'em an AK-47, and they'll take our hunting rifles. There is room for intelligent compromise. I like what Al Cross, head of SPJ’s Project Watchdog, suggested in the same Quill article: context. "Any stories need to be balanced with the question of access." Every day, he says, journalists should remind the public of the dangers of closing doors on public access. "If we made a better habit of it, people would have a better understanding of it and know the value of it."

Meantime, media should tackle the gray areas, helping the public distinguish between assaults by corporate interests and sunshine laws that make government transparent: What privacy legislation is regulating the public sale of data, as opposed to access? What are the public dangers of closing certain types of information? We do not have to sacrifice one right for another: The First and Fourth amendments can co-exist -- if we are not clouded by special interests. Journalists, that means us, too.


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