I’ve written here before about some of the privacy concerns and issues that come along with our new technologically-based world. One of the things that makes some of these issues difficult to address is that we are still, for the most part, operating under assumptions and rules that were worked out for a different cultural context. For example, I think it would have been hard for the original authors of the US Constitution to imagine a world in which it might be difficult, if not impossible, to have a truly private conversation.
Bruce Schneier has an excellent essay in the Japan Times on this topic. He points out the enormous, and often unrecognized, amount of information about where we have been, who we have talked to, and what we have been doing that we leave in electronic form. Even things that have always been public information, such as property records, are much more accessible now that they can be retrieved over the Internet. And the cost of getting at data that is, or should be, private is getting lower all the time:
Twenty years ago, if someone wanted to look through your correspondence, they had to break into your house. Now, they can just break into your ISP. Ten years ago, your voicemail was on an answering machine in your office; now it’s on a computer owned by a telephone company. Your financial accounts are on remote Web sites protected only by passwords; your credit history is collected, stored and sold by companies whose names you probably don’t even know.
Obviously, it is not possible to “un-invent” parts of our technology, nor would we really want to. But we do need to be conscious of the fact that the world has changed, and to ensure that the laws and rules that we establish for handling personal information set reasonable boundaries. Perhaps someday, everyone will be used to a world in which privacy is just a quaint idea. Until then, be careful out there.