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Opinion: Technology is increasing privacy, not threatening it

March 8, 1999
Web posted at: 5:21 p.m. EST (2221 GMT)

by David Moschella

(IDG) -- Ever since the Internet became a mass-market phenomenon, it seems that scarcely a week goes by without some sort of story warning about how the Web poses grave risks to individual privacy. Yet, as far as I can recall, I haven't seen a single media report that has emphasized a much more fundamental point: 20th century technology has greatly increased individual privacy, and only rarely diminished it. I suspect this will hold true for the 21st century as well.

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People tend to idealize the past, especially when it comes to privacy.

But let's revisit small-town America, a place where multiple generations often lived under the same roof; where everyone knew who was home at night and who was down at the local bar; where people shopped at the same stores, worked in the same companies, went to the same churches and doctors and used the same lawyers. Just about everything someone did, bought or said helped feed into the local gossip stream. Technology is the single biggest reason this has changed.

How many places are more private than one's own automobile? Similarly, except for our still-immature cell-phone technology, aren't we generally more confident that telephone conversations are less likely to be overheard than face-to-face ones?

Nobody knows what TV programs we're watching or music we're listening to. Indeed, if anything, you could argue that perhaps we have too much privacy. Is there a simpler way to explain why so many of us behave so badly?

Computers are extending this trend, not reversing it. E-mail and voice mail let many of us work without others having any idea where we are. Asynchronous and mobile technologies are breaking down the very idea of a fixed office, with all its oversight, intrusion and conformity.

More important, the Web offers a truly historic expansion of privacy in matters of health, religion, sexuality, politics, finance and other sensitive areas. Encryption eventually will take us to an even more secure level.

Don't get me wrong: There are certainly plenty of legitimate risks. Credit-card information, cookies, registration information and similar Web-usage data can all be seriously abused.

We should be thankful that watchdog groups voluntarily stay on top of the situation and push Intel to be smarter about serial numbers and embarrass GeoCities for not respecting the confidentiality of its customer information. It's simply naive to think that pure industry self-regulation won't result in some significant abuses.

But none of this justifies the ongoing sense of negativism.

The mainstream media, and some of the privacy watchdogs themselves, appear to operate under the assumption that computers are fundamentally dangerous and need to be carefully controlled.

This is ironic because the biggest threat to privacy isn't computers at all, but the very media that complain about them so much. The same newspapers and TV networks that love to scare us about the Web don't think twice about splashing intimate personal information all around the world.

Of course, scaremongering does make for some excellent books and movies. We can all enjoy George Orwell's 1984 or last year's film, Enemy of the State. And it's probably good for us to occasionally revisit that nightmarish world where computers record every transaction and satellites track every movement.

But don't confuse this with reality. The more pervasive technology becomes, the more privacy we will enjoy.

Thus it has been, and thus it shall prove to be again.

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