EDITORIAL: Define privacy for digital age

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Yes, Big Brother is watching — but he may be more salesman than spy.

MANY AMERICANS are upset, for good reason, over news that federal security agencies have been seizing phone records by the billions. Apparently, only incoming and outgoing calls are involved — no one has been listening in on a mass scale. We say “apparently” with respect to the old Ronald Reagan dictum: Trust, but verify.

This feels like an unwarranted intrusion and violation of individuals’ personal privacy. And that isn’t supposed to happen in the United States of America, seemingly flying in the face of Fourth Amendment rights.

As usual, such intrusions are justified by those involved as relating to national security matters. They’re just trying to protect us from the bad guys. Don’t we know what’s good for us?

WE CHOOSE not to bite on that hook. It is not easy to draw the bright line in a time of terror between legitimate national security functions and unacceptable digital fishing expeditions that infringe on freedom. But we are relatively confident the line exists somewhere well short of sweeping up literally billions of private phone records.

Yet in a very real sense this issue is much larger than the current controversy over phone records. The appropriate question for the modern age goes something like this: What is privacy, and do we have any realistic expectation of it anymore?

Forget, for the moment, the latest exposure of questionable conduct by the government.

Instead, think about every email you send, every text message, every post on Facebook, every click as you surf the web. Somewhere out there in cyberland there are outfits — multiple outfits — monitoring your usage, categorizing your interests and building digital portfolios of who you are and what trips your consumer trigger.

Ever wonder why, after you’ve clicked on one item or another of interest on the web, the next time you log on an ad for that item or something related pops up on your screen? Wonder no more. Big Brother is watching you, and Big Brother is more likely to be a business trying to sell you something rather than some cloak-and-dagger government spook.

THAT’S NOT TO minimize the disturbing nature of government digital snooping. The attention this intrusion has drawn is warranted.

But we believe America needs to have a much larger discussion about privacy rights in the age of digital information. Data-mining is way too easy in the Wild West digital world. Some may be comfortable with that. We’d wager millions of Americans are not.

Developing reasonable public policy to govern abuses is overdue. While this focus on government snooping is fresh, we urge policy-makers to look into the bigger questions.

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