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Public’s privacy is on the line

Anonymity is dead.

At least that’s the word from one of the government’s top intelligence officials, who has redefined what constitutes an intrusion into people’s lives. Because no one’s anonymous in the age of the Internet, this official argues, privacy is basically what the government and the business community say it is.

“Protecting anonymity isn’t a fight that can be won,” Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence, said in a speech last month at an intelligence conference, the contents of which only now have come to light. “Anyone that’s typed in their name on Google understands that.”

Privacy, he concluded, “is a system of laws, rules and customs with an infrastructure of inspectors general, oversight committees and privacy boards on which our intelligence community commitment is based and measured.”

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This Orwellian outlook comes as the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote Thursday on whether telecom companies should be granted immunity for assisting the Bush administration in its warrantless spying program.

To see whether Kerr’s position is shared by others, I ventured to the well-heeled, macchiato-drinking community of Brentwood, where I figured people would take matters of privacy especially seriously.

It’s been my experience that people with lots of money and lots of lawyers tend to be the touchiest about intrusions into their private lives.

This being L.A., practically the first person I bumped into was an actor.

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Marc Blucas, 35, appeared on the TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” playing one of Buffy’s boyfriends and a secret government agent. He’s also been in movies including “The Alamo” and “First Daughter.”

Blucas was walking his dog and we got to chatting about what Kerr had said and whether it was impossible to remain anonymous in the digital age.

Blucas’ first reaction, like a number of people I spoke with, was that it’s too bad privacy has taken a pistol-whipping, but what are you going to do in these post-9/11, terrorist-infested days?

The more we spoke, however, the more animated he became about the need to stop handing away our civil liberties to every government agency that plays the national-security card.

“It’s like paparazzi,” Blucas said. “Maybe they take a shot of me at the market or cleaning up after my dog, and that’s OK. But then I get people with cameras following me home in their car. It’s really freaky. You start fearing for your safety.

“Where do you draw the line?” he asked.

In a sense, we’re all celebrities in the MySpace/Facebook era, readily exposing ourselves to public scrutiny. We disclose potentially sensitive personal details in e-mail messages and discuss our most confidential matters over cellphones.

Should we be surprised then that government cyber-agents are lurking in the electronic shadows, cameras at the ready, to catch us at our most compromising moments?

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The Bush administration has acknowledged working with major telecom companies to intercept e-mails and phone calls without first obtaining warrants. Administration officials have said the surveillance was limited to a relatively small number of overseas communications.

But Mark Klein, a former AT&T; technician, told reporters in Washington last week that not only did the spying include domestic communications but it also involved potentially billions of e-mails and calls. His allegations, which he says are supported by internal documents, are part of a lawsuit pending in the courts.

The Bush administration wants immunity for the telecom companies even though government officials simultaneously (and head-scratchingly) insist that the companies haven’t done anything wrong.

An AT&T; spokesman said the company didn’t comment on national-security matters.

Most of the younger people I spoke with this week didn’t mind a little government intrusion in their lives. El Segundo resident Amber Wegner, 31, who manages a Brentwood bakery, said this was just the way things were.

“I place calls and send e-mails with an expectation that someone may be listening in,” she said. “It’s strange and unfortunate, but it’s reality.”

On the other hand, people who might be considered more established economically and socially tended to see any privacy incursions as a serious threat.

“It’s not that I have a ‘reasonable expectation’ of privacy,” said George Hardy, 58, a stock trader. “I demand privacy. And I expect the government to protect it.”

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He said Kerr’s comments reflected a moving of the goal posts when it came to defining privacy violations.

“They’re trying to get us to accept the premise that anonymity is dead,” Hardy said. “If you accept that, then they’ll jump to the next such premise. It’s a very slippery slope.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I think we’re all entitled to a very reasonable expectation of privacy when we communicate among ourselves and with others. We may not have a constitutional right to privacy per se, but the 4th Amendment’s protection against illegal search and seizure comes close enough.

If you want to give away the store on your MySpace page, so be it. But that’s your choice. Neither the government nor corporate entities have any business poking around your personal life without probable cause, and that means a court warrant.

As for anonymity being dead, tell that to the oil-industry bigwigs who met with Vice President Dick Cheney around the time of the California power crisis in 2001 to discuss national energy policy. Cheney and Bush say the names of meeting participants need to be kept under wraps to protect their privacy so they can dispense candid advice.

Anonymity is clearly very much alive when it suits the administration’s needs.

In his speech, Kerr called for a “productive debate” that “focuses on privacy as a component of appropriate levels of security and public safety.”

We’ve already had that debate. The result was the legal concept of due process. Nothing’s changed.

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Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.


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