Saturday, May 02, 2009

Is privacy dead?

Fordham law professor Joel Reidenberg assigned a project to his class to emphasize how much information about us is publicly available. The assignment? To create a dossier on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice Scalia is reported to have made comments that questions the need for protection of private information. The 15-page dossier the class assembled included Scalia's home address, phone number, food and movie preferences, his wife's personal email address and other tidbits. Scalia responded with, "Professor Reidenberg's exercise is an example of perfectly legal, abominably poor judgment. Since he was not teaching a course in judgment, I presume he felt no responsibility to display any." More here from the ABA Journal article.

Personally, I find it satisfying when advocates for a position hoist the opposition on their own petard. Especially when, as it is reported here, that there is no real abuse. The professor made the point quite well, writing, "When there are so few privacy protections for secondary use of personal information, that information can be used in many troubling ways. A class assignment that illustrates this point is not one of them. Indeed, the very fact that Justice Scalia found it objectionable and felt compelled to comment underscores the value and legitimacy of the exercise."

I think our society will be engaged in a debate about privacy - and the growing lack thereof - for the foreseeable future. To my mind, privacy has been an illusion for a long time. The real difference is that it is increasingly easy to find out all sorts of information, very quickly, and for little money. In recent decades, the same information was available, it was simply more difficult and, often, more costly to find it.

This is a difference that may matter, though. There is a difference between knowing that someone can walk down the street and photograph your house and yard, and seeing that Google has done so and has published the result for anyone in the world to see. The view of your house has never been private, but publishing the photograph feels different.


bugboys69 said...

I love you!

Rachel said...

Try having not only the photograph of your house published, but your first, last and middle name (along with all your husband's info), and the amount you paid for it published online as well.

It totally feels like an invasion of privacy to me. :(

Fiona said...

I think we agree, Rachel. That's why we think he should be more open to the idea that there are too few privacy protections. Now that he knows how it feels, that is.