Friday, June 01, 2007

Privacy (and civility) is gone, and it's not coming back

My column for the Potomac News this week examined the issue of privacy in an Internet world, using as an example the sad saga of Allison Stokke, a young girl who, through no fault of her own, is now a worldwide sex object.

Since I wrote the column Tuesday, Google punched another hole in the wall people thought existed protecting their privacy, launching the "Street View" service in selected cities. Some lady is complaining because there's a picture of her house, and her cat, for the world to see. And her cat was IN HER HOUSE.

Anyway, we can't stop it, we can't fix it, we can't control it. There is no privacy anymore.

From the article "Fame in an Internet World" (my title: "Is anything truly private any more"):

The Internet makes the world a small place. I remember as a child the excitement of having a pen-pal in Nigeria, sending "air mail" letters written on a blue envelope. Later, I took up Amateur Radio and once spoke with a South African in Morse code from my basement.

Now you can send e-mail anywhere. You can watch live camera feeds from around the world. There are chat rooms and MySpace and YouTube. It's possible to "know" someone in Singapore better than you know your neighbor.

I talk a bit about how this effects politicians. We all remember George Allen and the "macaca" moment -- something that he might would have weathered if he had responded appropriately, but may not have had to weather at all if it wasn't for the internet. But whatever a politician used to get away with, there's always a camera now. Be it picking your nose, scratching the wrong place, a little smirk when a good-looking girl walks by -- the internet and picture phones make the world a landmine for politicians.

And sometimes the Internet itself is the problem, like with Jeff Dion and his picture appearing on a dating page.

But I think as more people use "gotcha" moments against politicians, the problem will solve itself, because we'll figure out that every politician is human, and their gaffes will cancel out.

The bigger problem is "private" citizens:

But it's not just politicians that suffer invasion of privacy because of the Internet. Anybody can be filmed or photographed. The more you attract attention, the more likely you are to star in someone's next "film," but quiet anonymity is no guarantee you will be ignored.

I introduce Allison Stokke, a very talented pole vaulter. At a high school track meet, a photographer took a photo of her standing around, not lewd or anything, and put it on the California track web site, with all the other meet pictures. But there's a blogger who posts good-looking sports women with funny quips and stories, and Stokke is a good-looking woman. In a matter of weeks, she was a world-wide sensation. Her picture was being replicated thousands of times -- there are now hundreds of thousands of references to her name.

Now there are "Allison Stokke" websites, people put her image on their computer desktop backgrounds, and there are chat forums where the Post says "anonymous users looked at Stokke's picture and posted sexual fantasies." It's a parent's nightmare. Allison's mom said "This kind of stuff has been going on (in private) for years. But now, locker room talk is just out there in the public."

Imagine if someone snapped a picture of your daughter attending a fair, or just walking down the street, and within weeks grown men were lusting after her. That's the Internet.

Allison was not a completely private figure. She chose to compete on a track team. She's very good so she was bound to be recognized. But before the Internet, that "fame" would be confined to her track world and be based on her skills, not her looks.

Allison has decided she can't fight it. So she gave her story to the Washington Post, and my guess is she'll try to make some money. As I said in the article, none of her pictures are pornographic, but it might just be a matter of time, as she's photographed constantly. If she ever pulls her shirt too hard wiping sweat, or something shifts wrong, or if someone slips a cell phone into a locker room -- there's nothing she can do to stop it.

And this can happen to anyone.

But the Internet completely changed the concept of "privacy". It is anarchy: subject to no law, obedient to no ethic, subject to no morality, governed by the whims of the participants. You might put family pictures in a private gallery, but someone can get at them. With devices like cell phones that can take pictures and video, even if you don't post your pictures, your privacy could still be violated.
I wish there was a happy ending. But there is no way to go back to the day when your privacy was protected by the cost of collecting information, storing it and having to physically handle it. We can store the knowledge of the world for next to nothing. There are no barriers other than our own moral and ethical foundation. And for too many people, those were lost long ago.


Anonymous said...

I find it rather disturbing that
people are more interested in
looking into the lives of strangers
then getting to know their own
family and friends. What a sad state humanity is now in.

Anonymous said...

Take in some nature,bond with someone who really needs it.
Privacy is something everyone
deserves to have.