Bruce Maiman

Viewpoints: Hypocrisy abounds in debate over privacy

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 9A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Apr. 2, 2013 - 11:40 am

Passionate debates over privacy are nothing new, but I'm hardly convinced we're as serious about privacy as we say we are, even when it comes to our own personal privacy.

When a suburban New York newspaper published an interactive map of all firearms permit holders in its community, the volume and venom of the backlash was palpable, but I wonder how many gun control advocates approved of the newspaper's decision? How many teachers may have approved, given calls for schools to be armed against a potential mass shooter?

Yet how many teachers and other public workers here in California were angered when The Bee published a database listing the salary of every public worker in the state, and how many gun owners outraged by the New York newspaper cheered The Bee database when it appeared some five years ago?

Yes, they're somewhat apple and orange-y, but it still speaks to our hypocrisy about privacy.

That interactive map prompted Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Marysville, to introduce legislation – Assembly Bill 134 – protecting private information of licensed gun owners in California.

"I want their contact information, their phone numbers, their addresses, to not be public," he told me. "Except to law enforcement."

Under the California Public Records Act, anyone can access those records.

"My No. 1 concern is if a woman who's being stalked has a concealed permit and she moves, a perpetrator can still get her contact information," Logue said.

In a different tug of war between privacy and security, Alameda County remains undecided on the use of surveillance drones for domestic policing despite a contentious three-hour public meeting last week.

These aren't al-Qaida kill machines but little four-pound eye-in-the-sky devices police say they'd employ only for things like a Chris Dorner manhunt, hostage situations or search-and-rescue operations, not for routine patrols.

However, opponents worry: If a drone dispatched to a mission-oriented task spots a backyard with, say, a marijuana patch; does that get turned over to other agencies? What happens if an errant snapshot of a nude sunbather suddenly goes viral?

We'd all stare at it, that's what; because when it comes to privacy, we are a society of rubberneckers, hardly any better than the government we distrust that snoops in the name of national security. The same can be said for the Facebooks and Googles of the world whose data mining we often see as harmless, or the hacktivists whose spying we sometimes see as heroic.

We say we treasure our privacy yet post our entire lives online. We tweet and we Facebook, friend and unfriend, and more. Few things have the potential to go public as the things we post online. Yet we're stunned when they do since we thought them too unimportant for others to care about, yet important enough to us to post in the first place.

We gossip about neighbors and co-workers. An enormous cottage industry built around celebrity gossip exists because we're interested.

At last month's Golden Globes, Jodie Foster lamented, "If you'd been a public figure from the time you were a toddler, if you had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, maybe you, too, might value privacy above all else."

Can we empathize when someone complaining about a lack of privacy spends nearly seven minutes talking about her personal life at one of Hollywood's most public showcases?

Yet we gawk at celebrity photos while holding paparazzi in contempt, seeing them as vultures casing a place for a "gotcha" photo of the flavor du jour. Who mourns for Chris Guerra, the paparazzo struck by an SUV and killed on New Year's Day while stalking Justin Bieber? What are we to think of the other paparazzo on scene who photographed Guerra's hat and shoe lying in the middle of the road, or the agency that sold that photo for publication? Does the notion of enriching one paparazzo for feeding off the death of another even sound appealing? Someone thought so.

Regardless of how one feels about publishing those gun owners' names, their records were used in a way they surely didn't anticipate. We don't sign up to be sheep that are constantly sheared, but that's the new business model in today's digital world. It's one thing to turn over your personal information to a government agency, but quite another to become corporate fodder, or the object of someone's agenda or personal pleasure.

However, therein may lie our ultimate problem. We resent the spying, prying and meddling by snoops, nanny-staters and values-imposers, but aren't we just as nosy as they are, whoever we think "they" are?

Part of the answer, I suspect – at least in the public square – depends on whether yours is the privacy being violated.

That's not a grand revelation, but we sure have trouble admitting it.

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