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November 28, 2012

Privacy in peril

If you’ve got a feeling that somebody’s watching you, the good news is that you’re not paranoid. Sting got it right: Every move you make, every vow you break, every smile you fake, increasingly, is being tracked.

New Jersey drivers are prohibited from smiling for their license photos because the happy pretense reportedly confounds a facial-recognition software that curbs fraud. As technology evolves and public cameras proliferate, governments and other entities may be able to name our faces as we squirm through the Surveillance State.

On a recent “winners and losers” segment of “Saturday Night Live,” Seth Meyers addressed the David Petraeus extramarital sex scandal. “Loser: People trying to have affairs in the Digital Age, it’s official — you can’t get away with it! The head of the CIA couldn’t get away with it. For real, for real, that flirting you’re doing (online) is going to ruin your life. Winner: People who had affairs in the pre-Digital Age … In the ’60s, if you could just keep the lipstick off your collars, you could have three families!”

Even ethical, law-abiding citizens have reason to freak out. It’s disturbingly dystopian that Big Brother is eating the remnants of our privacy as our computers feast on his data-tracking cookies.

A May 2 New York Times piece, “How to Muddy Your Tracks on the Internet,” cites the usual corporate profiteers (“snoopers”) and ways to thwart them, noting, “The more effort and money you spend, the more concealed you are.”

And moneyed interests are resisting portions of a proposed update to children’s online privacy protections. The Federal Trade Commission wants 1998 legislation strengthened, in part to require “a parent’s permission before collecting photographs, videos or voice recordings from children under 13,” the Times reported on Nov. 5. “The idea makes sense to some leading privacy researchers, who say that facial recognition technology could allow strangers to identify and possibly contact children.”

Opponents argue that the risk could be removed by excluding contact information.

Spy “faction” author Brad Thor, in a June 24 interview on “CBS This Morning,” said, “My kids eventually are going to want to get into social media. I don’t want them in that sphere,” adding he would create their accounts under fake names. “You’ve really got to train your kids that that’s permanent; that’s not footprints in the sand … that’s in cement.”

His latest novel, “Black List,” contemplates “the explosion of surveillance technology” and “what happens if all this data collection that we do in this country gets turned against us.” Post 9/11, he said, “the (NSA) did turn its giant listening ears in — and we all became potential suspects. Our emails started being recorded and stored, our text messages, our phone calls … and that data is being stored, sifted and analyzed.”

Thor, who described himself as a straight arrow with ties to the intelligence community, added, “I love when technology gets used to nail bad guys,” but not when it’s abused.

Veteran Louisville attorney Jon Fleischaker recently told me, “I think you’re going to find more intrusive behavior on behalf of law enforcement agencies because the concept of privacy is going to narrow.”

Technology threatens privacy to the extent it enables greater surveillance. But the American Civil Liberties Union champions privacy rights, recently arguing that the use of a GPS device to track a suspect’s car required a warrant based on probable cause.

At issue is the Fourth Amendment. It protects citizens from searches that violate a reasonable expectation of privacy, which “encompasses what you, as an individual, consider reasonable, and secondly what society considers reasonable,” says Fleischaker.

Those who willfully surrender personal information can’t reasonably expect to re-privatize it. “I’m constantly amazed at what is on Facebook and what kids tell each other,” he said. “And as we know, once it’s out there, it’s out there. When my generation passes in 20 or 30 years, you’re going to have a whole new generation of people who grew up with this stuff. The whole concept of privacy is going to change radically — with major consequences.”

Sherry Turkle, author of “Alone Together,” last month blamed her generation for a failure to regulate the new technologies. “I think this is something we need to be thinking very hard about in the years ahead because I think democracy needs privacy,” she told NPR’s Terry Gross. “I think intimacy needs a sense of privacy.”