The Morning File: Highlights from the privacy invasion front

24 Feb The Morning File: Highlights from the privacy invasion front

Pittsburgh Post Gazette, By Gary Rotstein, February 23, 2009
What’s a man got to do to get some personal rights and privacy around here? Like the 175 million users of Facebook, I was outraged by its initial announcement that it would retain the rights forever to any content I post on my Facebook account. Then I remembered that I’ve never posted any information on Facebook. So the outrage dissipated, especially when the Web site reversed course and said people could close out their information, if they want. The only advantage of Facebook, far as I can tell, is that when you go on a killing spree, reporters have some way of revealing your personal information without your relatives returning their calls. (“Smith’s Facebook account reveals that the accused mass murderer’s favorite Verdi opera is ‘La Battaglia di Legnano’ and that he had a longtime passion for making balloon animals, especially worms.”) Regardless of Facebook’s reversal, a troubling stream of news seems designed to prick the libertarian streak of so many Americans. If you don’t believe Big Brother is watching over you, or listening to you, or is right there in the bathtub with you any time you close your eyes for an instant, it just means you’re not paranoid enough. Google Inc. has released new software that enables people with wireless devices like mobile phones to automatically share their locations with family and friends, based on GPS and cell phone tower tracking. The users have to activate the device in order for it to work and can designate which other people have the right to view their location. Supposedly, it’s a great way for suspicious parents to monitor their children’s whereabouts. “This adds a social flavor to Google maps and makes it more fun,” Steve Lee, a Google product manager, told The Associated Press. But really, how long before this technology is misused? There must be some way for a wife to grab the phone while the hubby’s asleep, activate the tracking device, and then follow him along from bar to bar when he says he’s working late. And the wife who has supposedly gone to visit her mother for the afternoon? Google may show her actual movements from boutique to mall to department store, perhaps even adding in a “ka-ching” sound effect as an alert. Already, one can use Google to look at photos of anybody’s house and street by typing in an address and going to “Street View.” If you look in one of my windows real closely, I think you can see something highly personal you have no right to see — such as a man picking his toenails or cheating on his tax forms. Aaron and Christine Boring of Franklin Park objected that such images — their house, not their toenails or taxes — invaded their privacy. They filed suit against Google in protest, saying they lived on a private road and wanted to be removed. U.S. Magistrate Judge Amy Reynolds Hay rejected their plea last week. “While it is easy to imagine that many whose property appears on Google’s virtual maps resent the privacy implications, it is hard to believe that any — other than the most exquisitely sensitive — would suffer shame or humiliation,” she wrote. Scarily, I believe that’s the precise wording George Orwell used on page 72 of “1984.” And then there’s good old Utah, a beautiful place whose residents would prefer you appreciate it quietly and soberly, without contaminating anyone with any of your stupid vices. Hence, some recent discussion of a statewide database to track patrons’ visits to bars. Utah doesn’t really have any “bar” bars, which anyone can walk into for an alcoholic beverage. You have to sign up as a member of a private club to go out drinking. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman wants to eliminate that hurdle. But some lawmakers believe that if they adopt this wild practice of people ordering drinks wherever and whenever they please, there should be a statewide database — such as a scan of driver’s licenses — to track patrons’ visits. “Perhaps it would be a tool for law enforcement if there was a DUI incident to find out at least the number of establishments that someone had frequented,” the AP reported Senate President Michael Waddoups saying. The governor opposes the tracking, saying Utah needs to get less quirky with its laws, not moreso. Pennsylvania, of course, has its own oddities, and not just in the liquor realm. For instance, the state doesn’t want you using the word “hell” in the name of your business. Filmmaker George Kalman of the Philadelphiaarea tried to register a somewhat unique company name, I Choose Hell Productions. Pennsylvania’s Department of State denied him that right, citing state law that prohibits names that contain blasphemy or profanity. To heck with the state, says the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed suit to try to win Mr. Kalman his right to “hell.” The Morning File believes Mr. Kalman should have that right. After all, everyone already refers to “the %&• &#$ government,” and nobody seems to prohibit that.