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Book Review: Everyone an Exhibitionist


Book Review: Everyone an Exhibitionist

January 25, 2005
Urban PolicyCrimeOther

In the debates over the Patriot Act and other antiterrorist measures, a group of critics has emerged who claim that the entire realm of “privacy” is in peril. But such privacy advocates, as we might call them, have a problem even bigger than the government: the public.

Despite the advocates’ warnings about Big Brother, Americans keep scarfing up every new consumer convenience, regardless of how much personal information is extracted in return. Cell phones, credit cards and the Internet record our tastes, purchases and movements in minute detail. And that computerized portrait does not stay put: Anyone who wants to sell us yet more goodies more efficiently can buy it.

In fact, people give away personal information even when they don’t have to. In 1998, hundreds of thousands of magazine readers filled out an eight-page, 700-item questionnaire about themselves just because Condé Nast was curious about its subscribers’ most intimate medical problems and life-style choices. Americans clearly have a far more relaxed view of privacy than the activists who claim to speak on their behalf.

Yet the doomsayers carry on. In “No Place to Hide” (Free Press, 348 pages, $26), Washington Post reporter Robert O’Harrow Jr. warns of a future in which most external aspects of our lives end up in a database, potentially available to corporations and law-enforcement officials. The cutting-edge capacities he describes for tracking individuals -- biometric face-scanners, say, or tiny radio transmitters -- are indeed sobering. But he places too much emphasis on what can go wrong with data collection and not enough on its enormous benefits. Despite its impressive scope, “No Place to Hide” presents a lopsided view of the information revolution. In fact, it offers a case study in how to generate a good privacy scare:

  • Refusing to balance costs and benefits. Mr. O’Harrow presents every horror story he can find about a data system gone awry. Florida authorities bar an eligible voter from voting in the 2000 presidential election in Florida after computers falsely identify him as a felon. Police accuse three innocent women of murder because the surveillance camera on an ATM had an inaccurate clock. (The error was discovered before prosecution.)

Such misfirings are regrettable, and every measure should be taken to avoid them. But ATM cameras have much more often deterred or solved crimes than generated false charges. The cost to democratic legitimacy of election fraud outweighs the minimal risk that antifraud technology will disenfranchise eligible voters. Virtually every modern discovery that improves life -- from vaccines to automobiles -- carries risks; balancing those risks against the technology’s benefits is a skill that privacy advocates seem to lack.

  • Ignoring privacy safeguards. “No Place to Hide” chronicles the rise of data warehousing companies, such as Axciom and ChoicePoint, that vacuum up every piece of information about consumers that they can find. After 9/11, these companies offered their databases to national-security agencies to prevent another attack.

Since then, federal researchers have feverishly explored how to use such information to track down future terrorists. Mr. O’Harrow worries that the nascent partnership between data companies and the government will result in a surveillance state. But computer experts are just as feverishly exploring how to prevent the misuse of data, such as concealing individual identities until evidence of a crime develops. Mr. O’Harrow is silent on the promising technologies that aim to protect privacy while increasing public safety.

  • Living in a time warp. For privacy advocates, it’s always 1968, when J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was monitoring political activists with no check on its power. But that FBI is dead and gone. In its place has arisen a risk-averse bureau that, in the years preceding 9/11, worried more about avoiding civil-liberties controversies than about preventing terrorism. The red tape that now constrains intelligence-gathering makes a repeat of Hoover’s excesses unthinkable. Yet Mr. O’Harrow condemns the most imperative post-9/11 reforms -- e.g., tearing down “the Wall” that once prevented information-sharing within the antiterror community -- as a dangerous power grab.
  • Sticking with theory over facts. No self-respecting privacy Jeremiad can do without a reference to the Panopticon, the imaginary prison conceived by philosopher Jeremy Bentham that allows the constant surveillance of its inmates. For privacy scolds, we are already imprisoned in the Panopticon, thanks in part to anticrime video cameras on city streets and in private buildings. According to Panopticon theory, surveillance produces a cowed, inhibited society because, as Mr. O’Harrow puts it, “it chills culture and stifles dissent.”

As it happens, London, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Los Angeles have set up cameras in public spaces, to great fanfare. It would have been easy for Mr. O’Harrow to visit one of those cities to report on the effect. What he would have found is that, rather than skulking against walls or cowering indoors, residents engage in the same exhibitionistic behavior as before, only more so, because more people now feel safe enough to use the streets.

We can be thankful that Mr. O’Harrow doesn’t try to define privacy, usually an exercise in wind-baggery. It would have been useful, however, if he had disclosed his bottom line. Does he think that personal information should never be used for national security or marketing, or only under certain conditions? By the end of the book, he has criticized so many information systems -- including fingerprinting -- that he would seem to regard as unacceptable any identification method that is not 100% accurate. He sneers at background checks for prospective employees without considering whether even he might jump at the chance to run a criminal scan on a nanny for his children.

In any case, it’s going to take a lot more than privacy scares to persuade Americans to forgo that next nifty device -- a wristwatch, perhaps, that includes a Global Positioning System, camera and cell phone -- no matter how many consumer companies or cops might want to track its use.