Friday, October 12, 2012

Goodbye, private Idaho?

A little car with a tall camera mounted on top was running through the valley’s neighborhoods this week. Identified by the Google logo on its door, it zipped here and there like a honeybee headed for clover.

The clover for Google is the street view for its online maps. With that view, anyone in the world with a computer, a tablet or smartphone can virtually stand on the street in front of a building and look at it. That building could be a business, an office, a warehouse. Or, your house.

This is happening even in our Sun Valley area, a place that inevitably inspires visiting travel writers to use the word “remote” to describe it. Technology is fast turning that word into an anachronism.

Like a lot of technology, online maps are super convenient, especially for drivers in a strange city who look to Google maps and other mapping systems to guide them easily to a business or to a friend’s doorstep. But street views that include information down to the color of a home’s exterior siding isn’t available only to welcome visitors. It’s available to anyone.

What was once unimaginable convenience, the stuff of science fiction, is evolving so rapidly that it’s exceeding the ability of Americans and our institutions to think about whether the price of it is worth paying in terms of what individuals give up in exchange.

Federal law protects individual privacy in medical matters, in information held by the government, and in certain financial information. However, it doesn’t protect individuals from giving up personal information voluntarily every time they click the “Agree” button in order to download applications on their computers, tablets or smartphones.

It’s difficult to read and application developers know that our desire to get the latest cool app greatly exceeds our desire to read fine print to ascertain what we’re giving up to get it—including our location, web activity and shopping histories.

It’s a good bet that most Americans believe the U.S. Constitution guarantees them a right of privacy. They’re wrong. The nation’s highest court has only “inferred” rights of privacy from other provisions in the Constitution, and it’s applied them only narrowly.

Privacy isn’t an issue that’ll be debated this fall even though political races are becoming white hot as Election Day is drawing near. But it should be.

Byte by byte, satellite by satellite, camera by camera and webcam by webcam, privacy once guaranteed by mere geography is evaporating with less discussion than the high price of gasoline

That Google car is cute, and web maps are useful. Should it give us the creeps to know that invisible strangers can gaze at our front doors, our yards and our rooftops from anywhere in the world? That’s something worth debating.

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