June 17, 2009

Privacy in the Internet age

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish; she has graciously shared with us her thoughts about privacy.

Some of us got to talking about privacy the other day, wondering how much of it we have today compared to a half century or more ago, and whether privacy is as valued today as it used to be. When you hear about kids sending nude photos of themselves to their friends on cell phones, you have to wonder whether they have any concept at all of discretion, let alone privacy. And it does seem that some people are willing to put all kinds of videos of themselves on an Internet site called You Tube.

A cautionary tale of one unintended consequence of all this was reported on Yahoo News recently. An American visitor to Prague in the Czeck Republic passed a store window and was surprised to see a huge photo of a family he knew in Missouri. What was their photo doing there? He took a photo of the photo and sent it to the people back home. It turns out that this was the Christmas photo the family sent out last year and they also put it on their blog and on a few “social networking sites.”

Once something gets on the Internet, I guess, you never know where it will end up or what use someone will make of it. The storeowner in Prague said he thought it was just a computer generated image when he took it off of the Internet and had no idea it was an image of a real family. Meanwhile the Missouri folks said next time they post a photo online, they’ll do something to make it hard to reproduce the image.

Obviously, technology has moved faster than our ability to adapt to it. Our former habits of mind just don’t always take into account all of the possibilities that exist these days. Even those of us who do think about protecting our privacy may not realize how quickly we agree to give it up.

For instance, when I shop at a supermarket and use that “club member” discount card, a computer is keeping track of what I buy and how often I come to the store. The store owners probably use such information for their own marketing purposes. The receipt prints out my name so the cashier can use it in wishing me a nice day, so if I happen to lose the receipt in the parking lot, somebody finding it will know what food and beverages I buy, what ailments I may be trying to cure with over the counter medicines, and how many more sandwiches I have to buy to get a free one.

The concern about identity theft and invasion of privacy can lead some enterprising people to capitalize on this worry. Last week I got some mail from a catalog I’ve ordered things from occasionally. The mail was a check for $7.75. A refund? Did I overpay for an order? I was curious so I looked at it carefully. I saw the statement, “By cashing or depositing this check you are purchasing a membership in ‘PrivacyGuard’. Read important details on reverse.” On the reverse was a notice that by endorsing the check I would be signing up for this service, whatever it is, and that my credit card would be charged $159.99 for the first year’s service unless I called to cancel it. I decided to guard my privacy by tearing up the check.

When it comes to balancing privacy and technology, I guess it all comes down to using common sense and being aware of the age we live in, an age when an image or statement you think was uttered in privacy can circle the globe in moments. I don’t want to be paranoid about it, but I want to be sensible. Personally, I like privacy. Sometimes I keep my thoughts private. And sometimes I don’t. Like today.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be reached at collins1@rushmore.com.

1 comment:

Barry G. Wick said...

Privacy schmivacy...give up your Internet...shut off the telephone...turn off your TV...only pick up the mail at 1 AM in the morning...never answer any mail...and you'll have all the privacy you can handle. Privacy and loneliness have a lot in common.