Our Opinion: Personal privacy in the age of information

News Tribune editorial

Psssst.

Can you keep a secret?

If so, you might consider a career in federal Homeland Security, state government, health care or online data mining.

Privacy issues dominate much of the national conversation these days, in part because technological advances have multiplied our ability to share, and intercept, information.

What we are willing to share, however, is not necessarily synonymous with what we want shared about us.

For example, we may willingly share personal information — up to and including what we had for dinner or photos of our children — on social media, but we may bristle if government secretly listens to our cellphone conversations or collects our personal data.

Consequently, the federal National Security Administration has caught flak after a leak revealed the agency listened in on private citizens’ cellphone conversations.

A subsequent controversy focused on the revelation that the U.S. also listened in on its European Union allies, which the president dismissed with an explanation that essentially boiled down to “everybody does it.”

In state government, Republican legislative leaders roundly criticized Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration for collecting personal data from driver’s license applications and making it available to the federal government.

Personal privacy also is at the core of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which restricts the dissemination of personal medical information.

On an individual level, personal information is something people often willingly trade for free access to social media. And online buying habits open a data mine for electronic marketing.

Personal discomfort, however, does not arise in connection with privacy we surrender voluntarily.

This can be as active as posting personal information on Facebook or as benign as willingly passing through a metal detector to enter a tax-supported government building.

The latter case is evidence that we have become accustomed to individual searches — as any air traveler can attest — in exchange for collective security.

But when do security concerns cross the line into invasions of privacy?

Is government becoming paranoid? Are we on the threshold of becoming a police state?

The issue may not be whether you can keep a secret. It may be whether you are confident your secrets aren’t being examined and/or exposed.

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