The Privacy Paradox

“THE POOREST MAN MAY IN HIS COTTAGE BID DEFIANCE TO ALL THE FORCE OF THE CROWN.”​—WILLIAM PITT, BRITISH POLITICIAN, 1759-1806.

IMPLIED in Pitt’s words is the idea that every person should have the right to some privacy, to build a battlement around some part of his life that shields it from uninvited scrutiny.

Privacy may mean different things to people from different cultures. For example, on the Pacific islands of Samoa, houses often have no walls at all, and most family activities within the house can easily be seen from outside. Yet, even there, it is considered bad manners to step into a house uninvited.

 People have long recognized the need for some measure of personal privacy. Thousands of years before William Pitt’s famous statement, the Bible indicated the need to respect the privacy of others. King Solomon wrote: “Make your foot rare at the house of your fellowman, that he may not have his sufficiency of you and certainly hate you.” (Proverbs 25:17) The apostle Paul admonished: “Make it your aim to . . . mind your own business.”​—1 Thessalonians 4:11.

So important is the right to privacy that The UNESCO Courier calls it “the bedrock of civil rights.” In the same vein, an influential Latin-American politician said: “In one sense, all human rights are aspects of the right to privacy.”

However, in today’s climate of escalating crime and global terrorism, governments and law-enforcement agencies increasingly feel that to protect their citizens, they must breach the barricades of privacy. Why? Because criminal elements in society use the right to privacy as a blind for badness. There is, therefore, a battle to balance a government’s responsibility to protect its citizens and an individual’s right to privacy.

Privacy Versus Security

The world-shaking terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, changed many people’s perception about the government’s right to invade some aspects of personal privacy. “September 11 changed things,” a former U.S. federal trade commissioner told BusinessWeek. He noted: “Terrorists swim in a society in which their privacy is protected. If some invasions of privacy are necessary to bring them out into the open, most people are going to say ‘O.K., go ahead.’” The magazine reports: “Polls taken since September 11 show that 86% of Americans are in favor of wider use of facial-recognition systems; 81% want closer monitoring of banking and credit-card transactions; and 68% support a national ID card.”

The kind of identity cards being considered by some Western governments would have the capacity to store the owner’s fingerprints and retinal scan and to provide access to any criminal history and financial records. It is technologically possible for information from an identity card to be linked to credit card information and matched to facial-recognition surveillance cameras. Thus criminals could be arrested following the purchase of materials for their criminal activities.

If criminals try to evade detection by hiding bombs, guns, or knives beneath clothing, or even behind the solid walls of a home, they can still be caught. Devices available to some security agencies can display images of whatever you have under your clothes. Newly developed radar devices allow police to identify individuals moving or even breathing in the next room. But do increased surveillance capabilities necessarily lead to lower crime rates?

Do Cameras Deter Criminals?

When crime rates in Bourke, an outback town in Australia, started to soar, four closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras were installed. The result was a dramatically reduced crime rate. This kind of success story, though, is not universal. In an effort to reduce the crime rate in Glasgow, Scotland, 32 CCTVs were installed in 1994. A study by the Scottish Office Central Research Unit found that in the  year following the installation, the number of certain types of crime decreased. However, the report noted: “Crimes of indecency, including prostitution, increased by 120; crimes of dishonesty increased by 2185; and miscellaneous offences (including drugs offences) increased by 464.”

Even if surveillance decreases crime in one area, it may not reduce overall crime rates. The Sydney Morning Herald highlighted a phenomenon police and criminologists term “displacement.” The paper stated: “When criminals see that they can be caught by a camera or police patrolling a certain area, they move to another location to commit a crime.” Perhaps that makes you think of something the Bible said long ago: “He that practices vile things hates the light and does not come to the light, in order that his works may not be reproved.”​—John 3:20.

 The challenge facing law-enforcement agencies is that even the most advanced radar or X-ray surveillance system cannot detect what is in a person’s mind and heart, yet it is there that the real battle to reduce crime, hatred, and violence must be fought.

There is, though, a form of surveillance already in place that is far more pervasive than any technology so far invented by man. This form of surveillance and the positive impact it can have on human behavior will be discussed in the next article.

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“Terrorists swim in a society in which their privacy is protected”

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How Private Are Your Medical Records?

Many people may think that the privacy of their medical records​—the description of their interactions with their doctor and hospital—​is guaranteed. Yet, as Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a privacy protection organization, warns, “you may have a false sense of security.” In his book Database Nation​—The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century, Simson Garfinkel states: “Today, medical records have an expanded role . . . They are used by employers and insurance companies to decide who should be hired and insured. They are used by hospitals and religious organizations to solicit donations. Even marketers are buying up medical records in search of sales leads.”

Garfinkel also notes: “What complicates the confidentiality process is the fact that between 50 and 75 people need access to a patient’s chart during a typical hospital visit.” In some places patients themselves may unwittingly give up their right to privacy by signing blanket waivers or general consent forms when being admitted to a hospital. By signing these forms, “you allow the health care provider to release your medical information to insurance companies, government agencies and others,” states Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

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Privacy Versus Commercial Interests

People who use the Internet are especially vulnerable to uninvited scrutiny. Privacy Rights Clearinghouse states: “There are virtually no online activities or services that guarantee an absolute right of privacy. . . . Internet users may retrieve information or documents from sites . . . , or users may simply ‘browse’ these services without any other interaction. Many users expect that such activities are anonymous. They are not. It is possible to record many online activities, including which newsgroups or files a subscriber has accessed and which web sites a subscriber has visited. . . . Records of subscriber ‘browsing patterns’ . . . are a potentially valuable source of revenue . . . This information is useful to direct marketers as a basis for developing highly targeted lists of online users with similar likes and behaviors.”

How else can your name end up on direct-marketing mailing lists? Your name can be added when you do any of the following:

▪ Fill out warranty or product registration cards.

▪ Join or donate money to clubs, organizations, or charities.

▪ Subscribe to magazines, book clubs, or music clubs.

▪ List your name and address in the phone book.

▪ Enter sweepstakes or other contests.

In addition, when you use a debit, credit, or check-cashing card to pay for groceries, it may be possible for the company to link your name and address to the list of groceries you buy, as they are passed by the price scanner. A detailed data base of your shopping habits can thus be compiled and possibly used for marketing purposes. *

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^ par. 32 Information adapted from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse Web site.

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Does surveillance lessen crime?