I have long argued that the women’s health and feminist movements mounted a weak strategy when they called for “pro-choice” perspectives in the discourse over abortion. In my view, we would have greater success winning the hearts and minds of Americans during the debates that swirl around reproductive rights and abortion if we focused on everyone’s right to privacy. Think about it: medically unnecessary vaginal ultrasounds constitute a violation of privacy. And don’t politicians who argue in favor of such invasions of women wish to keep their sexual peccadilloes private? Who can be against privacy?
Yet, now come invasions of personal privacy on such a massive scale that the mind boggles. When the world learned about the hacking scandals carried out by Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers it was a wake-up call of sorts, but since then other hacking stories have sent chills up our spines, not the least of which was learning that the Chinese had hacked into The New York Times and other news media.
No wonder this sort of thing, not to mention the real possibility of large-scale cyber-attacks, have become the newest worry among intelligence and military communities. Indeed, computer hacking is now so pervasive that a search of the Internet will take you to sites where you can learn to hack yourself. We are all at risk of being hacked all the time.
Or of having our credit card numbers used, our social security numbers stolen, our buying proclivities shared, our screens flooded with targeted advertising based on recent online searches, our whereabouts known, and so much more. As a journalist who often conducts research via the Internet, I shudder to think how many message minders believe I’m into child porn, sexual slavery, domestic violence and now, learning how to hack computers.
Invasions of privacy are also taking place routinely at many workplaces. According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, “new technologies make it possible for employers to monitor many aspects of their employees’ jobs, especially on telephones, computer terminals, through electronic and voice mail, and when employees are using the Internet. Such monitoring is virtually unregulated. Therefore, unless company policy specifically states otherwise (and even this is not assured), your employer may listen, watch and read most of your workplace communications.”
The same source reveals that medical privacy is fragile at best. Although the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 2003, known as HIPAA, set a national standard for privacy of health information, it only applies to medical records “maintained by health care providers, health plans, and health clearinghouses – and only if the facility conducts certain transactions electronically.” But a lot of health-related information exists outside of health care facilities and health plans, so it is beyond the reach of HIPAA. How much privacy you really have with respect to your medical information can depend upon where the records are located. And “confidentiality is likely to be lost in return for insurance coverage, an employment opportunity, your application for a government benefit, or an investigation of health and safety at your work site.”
Video surveillance is another way to intrude upon people as they navigate their daily lives. One BBC report written in 2006 revealed that Britain, dubbed “the most surveilled country in the world,” had at that time 4.2 million cameras poised to photograph its citizens and visitors all over the country. That’s one camera for every 14 British people. By 2016, the Surveillance Studies Network of Great Britain has predicted, “shoppers could be scanned as they enter stores, schools could bring in cards allowing parents to monitor what their children eat, and jobs may be refused to applicants who are seen as a health risk.”
New York City is not far behind. Last year a new Domain Awareness System was installed that so far has 3,000 cameras in place. Developed with Microsoft, the mayor’s office touts it as “an innovative tool that has the potential to revolutionize law enforcement, intelligence and public safety operations.” Unlike simpler camera surveillance networks, the new system “instantly gives officers massive amounts of information about what they are monitoring.”
There is, of course, an argument to be made for such spying in a time of terrorism and urban crime. But there is also the legitimate worry that Big Brother has, indeed, arrived.
Whatever your point of view is on increased surveillance whether by bosses, doctors or drones, we would all be wise to watch out for hackers, identify thieves, and marketers. Given the increasingly complex and intrusive world we live in, personal privacy is a civil rights issues that bears watching. Protecting it is a choice we should all be in favor of.