What Are You Lookin’ At? – New York Times

What Are You Lookin’ At?


WHAT does it take to get Americans riled about invasions of privacy?

Every week seems to bring reports of a new breach of the computer networks that contain our most intimate personal information. Scores of companies – including Bank of America, MasterCard, ChoicePoint and Marriott International – have admitted to security lapses that exposed millions of people’s financial information to potential abuse by identity thieves. For the most part, however, Americans have reacted with a collective shrug, many privacy experts said.

“They feel they can’t do anything about it, anyway,” said Lawrence Ponemon, the founder of a privacy consulting company, the Ponemon Institute. “They move on with their lives.”

Has something fundamental changed in Americans’ attitude toward privacy? Conditioned by the convenience of the Internet and the fear of terrorism, has the public incrementally redefined what belongs exclusively to the individual, and now feels less urgency about privacy?

Mr. Ponemon says this may be the case with young people, who post the most personal information about their lives and loves on blogs that can be read by millions.

New light may be shed on how Americans think about privacy – and the differences they see between commercial and government realms – in the reaction to news that President Bush signed a presidential order in 2002 allowing the National Security Agency to conduct domestic surveillance on individuals without the warrants required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Does the public reaction suggest that complacency has its limits?

Orin S. Kerr, an associate professor of law at George Washington University and a former trial lawyer for computer crime cases in the Justice Department, said it was too soon to tell about the impact of the N.S.A. disclosures.

“There’s a mixed set of reactions,” Mr. Kerr said. “Some people think it’s bad because there was a privacy violation. Some people think it’s a good thing, even though it may be illegal. They’re all over the map.”

But a poll conducted for Mr. Ponemon last month may show that people hold different views on commercial and government privacy issues. Conducted after The New York Times revealed the N.S.A. surveillance, it suggested great concern. Of those polled, 88 percent expressed concern, and 54 percent said they were “very concerned,” he said.

“It was, ‘Wow,’ ” Mr. Ponemon said. The 88 percent figure was more than twice the level of concern of past studies he had seen of public attitudes toward commercial privacy breaches.

The reaction to the president’s program could be cumulative, said Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman from Georgia who speaks out on civil liberties issues in alliance with conservative libertarian groups and the American Civil Liberties Union. When the privacy violations on the business side and those on the government side are taken into account, he said, “you get a truly frightening picture.”

The issue of government abuse of privacy in the name of security has been growing since the 9/11 attacks, said Alan F. Westin, a privacy expert and consultant who is a professor emeritus of public law and government at Columbia University. He has been tracking consumer attitudes about domestic security issues with telephone surveys since 2001, and has found a growing concern that the checks on government surveillance might be weakening.

Support for expanded government monitoring of cellphones and e-mail messages dropped from 54 percent in September 2001 to 37 percent in June 2005. Those who said they were “very confident” that expanded surveillance powers would be used in a “proper way” dropped from 34 percent in 2001 to 23 percent in 2004, the last year that that specific question was asked. Those who were “somewhat” confident in the government’s conduct of surveillance stood at 53 percent in 2004, unchanged from 2001.

“The essence really is a majority of the public does not believe the administration should be given a blank check,” Mr. Westin said.

Most people, he argued, accept that liberties might be curtailed under special circumstances like war – an idea expressed by the Latin epigram “Inter armes, silent leges,” meaning, “In war, the law is silent.”

But historically, he said, the restrictions of wartime have been understood to be temporary. “Now we’re in a permanent war” against terrorism, Mr. Westin said. “The administration says again and again that this is a permanent problem.”

The idea that the pendulum of liberties and restrictions might not swing back could be disquieting to many people, Mr. Westin said, adding “the new surveillance revelations about what the Bush administration has been doing puts those questions to the front.”

Historians tend to say that modern concept of rights against government snooping are a relatively recent phenomenon, and trace its legal roots to a famous 1890 law review article by Louis D. Brandeis and his law partner, Samuel D. Warren.

But Mr. Westin disagrees and argues that respect for personal privacy has been a consistent thread in societies that emphasized liberty.

“On the other hand,” he said, autocratic governments have always “had active programs to suppress or deny privacy.”

Democratic Athens provided far more protection for privacy than authoritarian Sparta. “Pericles, in his famous funeral oration, said Athens does not attempt to control people in their private lives,” Mr. Westin said.

America‘s founders saw Athens as their model, and individual rights in the United States are prized more highly than those of the community. This is in contrast to Continental Europe, where private property is less than sacrosanct, and where the American zeal for individual rights has often been regarded with suspicion. So it is striking that the Europeans, as opposed to Americans, have sought protections to keep personal data from being shared online, a battle that Americans supposedly gave up without much of a fight.

But some experts say Americans are deeply concerned about an erosion of their privacy. Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that public complacency is overstated, and could reflect a tendency among business consultants to issue findings that play down public concerns about corporate excesses.

“Do consumers care about privacy? The answer is that they clearly do,” Mr. Rotenberg said, whether the threat is from business or the government.

Even tell-all bloggers have privacy concerns, he said. They may describe their dates online, but if they lose cellphones full of contact information or if someone gains access to their instant message “buddy lists,” then “they care just as much about privacy as their parents and grandparents,” Mr. Rotenberg said.

“We like to control who knows what about us,” he added.