The Empress of Armpits

"There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment....It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug into your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live - did live, from habit that became instinct - in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."

National Security Agency? Sing Sing warden? No, the inimitable George Orwell in his novel, 1984. What would George say now about world-wide privacy issues? It seems that the Department of Homeland Security has ordered Digital Strip Search Machines, with 500 of them to be installed in U. S. airports by next year, effectively stripping passengers of their clothes. In fact, according to the Huffington Post, two will already have been installed, one in Boston and one in Chicago, by the time you read this. The government is asking for permission to place a GPS (Global Positioning System) on anyone's car without a warrant. They also want to use information taken from anyone's cell phone obtained without a warrant, including photos, contacts, internet search activity, etc. Then there's the California Department of Motor Vehicle attempt to have biometric information embedded in every driver's license.

Facebook and Google's Buzz have raised additional concerns. When Facebook did an about- face in December, allowing more information to be available by default, "to anyone with access to the Internet" (according to an article in the Jan. 28 "Economist"), it rankled some 350 million users, not to mention their friends and contacts. Mark Zuckerberg did not help matters much when he claimed in effect that he was just following what people wanted. Rather, it appeared that he was trying to lead people to what advertisers wanted. Then they added a bit of software called "Beacon" that broadcasts data about everything you purchase on the Internet. Never mind that the opt-out controls are fairly deep in the hierarchy and often tough to decipher. The group, Privacy International, has published a draft of a document supposedly drawn up by Google disclosing how they really feel about protecting privacy.

Remember Ezio Pinza and seeing a stranger "across a crowded room"? Now the stranger can be identified with a new phone app called "Recognizr", developed by Swedish firm The Astonishing Tribe. Here's a description of the process: "the user points the camera at a person across the room. Face recognition software creates a 3-D model of the person's mug and sends it across a server where it's matched with an identity in the database. A cloud server conducts the facial recognition and sends back the subject's name as well as links to any social networking sites the person has provided access to." You can see how the phone works here.

What about your DNA: do you think you have an inalienable right to that information? The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has recently declared that retention of DNA data is illegal, temporarily agreeing with you. But the amount of personal data that you personally control is growing exponentially smaller every day. You may consider yourself Empress of all you survey, but in effect you might end up being the Empress of Armpits and little else.

There are no easy answers here. In an article called "Candy Bars and Mars", originally published online in 1996, I wrote, "In a simpler time we simply closed our doors to ensure privacy. There were boundaries of outside and in, places you couldn't find me, places where I dreamed alone." Those places are fast disappearing under the onslaught of digital technology. As Stuart Connelly of the Huffington Post wrote on February 24 of this year, "Like rape, invasion of privacy is a crime that isn't really about what it seems to be about on the surface. How does a person ever feel comfortable again when they learn they've been exposed without their permission or knowledge? How can you make a victim whole again after that?

You can't."

The best we can hope for, at the moment, is to be alert, follow the news, and make our voices heard loud and long when it appears that authorities or corporations have transgressed what seems fair and reasonable. We could imitate Little Jack Horner and simply sit in a corner, but what happens when there are no more corners available?

Good questions. Few answers.

c. Corinne Whitaker 2010