Friday, October 30, 2009

Is right to privacy just a nostalgic American memory?

If doubts still exist that government hasn't become an overbearing Buttinski, consider the law enacted by Oklahoma state legislators requiring abortion physicians to complete a 10-page questionnaire explaining why their patients want an abortion and the patient's relationship with the father, among other matters.

The law's principal purpose, obviously, is to bludgeon physicians and their patients into canceling abortions rather than submit to government nosiness.

But this Oklahoma law makes a larger statement. Legislators presume the right to ignore patient and physician privacy as a means to an end. For now, a judge has blocked enforcement of the law.

Wherever one turns, personal privacy is vanishing faster than courts can act, and often they are unwilling to act when government claims the dubious right to ignore privacy because of "national security," whatever that means.

Unless Americans want to awaken some day and find themselves held in the grip of a Big Brother society in which every facet of their personal lives is on a database, they must demand government launch an attack on invasions of privacy.

This will require the best minds in ethics, eavesdropping technology, criminal and civil law, philosophy and social science—not to mention thoughtful members of Congress who can rise above the temptation for meaningless TV sound bites and deal with an increasingly menacing trend.

The threat to privacy is overwhelming. Commercial "spy shops" are brimming with inexpensive devices for bugging telephones and homes, night-vision gadgets for spying on people in the dark. Hackers have an array of ways of lifting content from computers, even simply by driving by a home with an electronic sweeper.

Commercial firms routinely sell data about customers to marketing firms. Online computer "cookies" retain information distributed to who knows where.

Private investigators and criminals alike can obtain Social Security numbers, income, medical records, credit card data--all presumably made available by willing sources indifferent to privacy rights.

Americans cannot avoid sharing private information. Banks, credit card companies, hospitals and employers require it. However, users of social networking who carelessly write about their personal habits, activities and relationships may unwittingly share some personal data.

Add to this mix government's exotic intrusiveness—satellite sifting systems that screen millions of voice and text messages; quiet drones that can peek on whole neighborhoods; urban TV cameras that track movements of people in crime-prevention programs.

Who should have access to this personal information and why they should have it are questions that require urgent attention.

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