Three years before Sept. 11, 2001, I attended the eighth annual Computers, Freedom & Privacy Conference in Austin, Texas, and listened to Don Haines of the American Civil Liberties Union give a lunchtime talk called "Is Big Brother Watching You?"
Thanks to scanning devices on toll roads and closed-circuit cameras on city streets, Haines warned, authorities would soon amass enough information to find out where we were, how fast we were moving and who walked or rode with us at any time of day. He showed how simple it was to obtain a wiretap warrant, and he noted that the courts rarely said no. His tone was ominous: The Panopticon world of perpetual surveillance and suppression that George Orwell and Aldous Huxley had foretold was near.
There was only one problem with Haines' presentation: He could not explain how surveillance would do us in. From where I sat, surveillance worked on behalf of people against authority, not the other way around. The 1991 police beating of Rodney King had been captured on home video; that same year, a security camera showed that liquor store owner Soon Ja Du had fatally shot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back. So what if we breeze through camera-monitored toll plazas and stroll sidewalks policed by electronic eyes? As long as we're not doing anything wrong, the electronic witness can only help us.
These days, civil libertarians have even higher hurdles to clear. Not only have lingering post-Sept. 11 fears softened our objections to surveillance, but computers have also warmly ushered the all-seeing eye into every fragment of our lives. From the shoes we buy to the calls we make to the gallons of water we squander in our homes, our every habit is tracked, recorded and potentially monitored; our random thoughts are offered up on social networks and blogs.
This is the culture that social critic Hal Niedzviecki examines in "The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors" (City Lights: 296 pp., $17.95 paper). Like so many before him, Niedzviecki suspects there's something wrong with all this spying, but he can't put his finger on what it is.
He is distressed that civic surveillance projects are popular with hipsters in his home city of Toronto; he is bewildered by the housewife who blogs about her sex life. He launches a number of experiments, all ending in disappointment: His blog attracts few readers; spying on his wife proves exhausting; and while his Facebook page brings him some 700 friends, only one shows up to meet him for a drink. From this, Niedzviecki concludes that we are "increasingly alone on a crowded planet," despite our tell-all ways.
Niedzviecki comes off as a social networking neophyte, a wide-eyed Rumpelstiltskin who has stumbled into a brave new world that he cutely dubs "Peep." He struggles with a question that has stumped far more sophisticated observers: How do you defend privacy in a world were people like to be watched?
In his 1998 book "The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?," David Brin notes that when hundreds of thousands of closed-circuit surveillance cameras were installed throughout Britain in the 1990s, they met with nearly unanimous public approval.
No surprise here: After the first such installation, in the town of King's Lynn, "the resulting reduction in street crime exceeded all expectations." More startling is how blithely people embrace surveillance that reaches into our personal files. In 2006, the Washington Post found that 54% of people surveyed thought the Bush administration's wiretapping program was an acceptable way to hunt down terrorists; 66% said they wouldn't mind the government looking into their phone records as long as there was a good reason.
Here we see what makes information-sharing so risky: More than half of us have become so inured to surveillance that we fail to recognize warrantless wiretapping as a criminal invasion of privacy. For many, the logic is likely: Surveillance is used to catch criminals and terrorists. I am neither a criminal nor a terrorist. Therefore I have nothing to fear.
But what about people who aren't committing crimes, just acting outside the bounds of propriety? In his eloquent 2000 book "The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America," George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen cautions that every human has a shadow side that needs expression in a place empty of judging eyes. We may break the law in trivial ways; we may do shameful, hurtful things that make it difficult to get a job or to stay married. If our secrets emerge without context, we may be branded pariahs for life.
Unlike the people in "The Peep Diaries," those in Rosen's book didn't elect to expose their personal lives. Instead, "their public faces were unfairly distorted after snippets of private speech and conduct were exposed to misinterpretation by an impatient world." They include Monica Lewinsky, whose bookstore purchases were broadcast after it was revealed she'd fooled around with President Clinton; Ronald Thiemann, who lost his job as dean of Harvard Divinity School after a computer technician discovered downloaded pornography on his home computer; and Celia Farber, onetime girlfriend of Spin magazine publisher Bob Guccione Jr., whom co-worker Staci Bonner claimed had benefited professionally from her relationship with the boss. Bonner sued on the grounds of sexual favoritism; in the process, Farber's every workplace foible became a matter of public record.
Rosen is astonishingly prophetic: He documents privacy invasions that should send a shudder through anyone who's ever sent a suggestive e-mail. Were he writing now, his subjects might include Maria Belen Chapur, whose love affair with South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford made her tan lines fodder for sniggering pundits.
Even Rosen's cautionary examples, however, may not prove persuasive to everyone: What kind of divinity professor drools over porn? Still, we have the right to our secrets, no matter how stupid -- and regardless of whether those secrets involve sex or resistance to a political regime.
When privacy expert Phil Zimmerman fought, throughout the 1990s, to distribute his Pretty Good Privacy program -- even to the point of defeating a criminal investigation -- he did so because the technology that serves people hiding a secret romance also serves dissidents standing up against oppressive governments. PGP, as his encryption program is now known, has been deployed around the world where privacy is essential. Belen Chapur might have put it to good use.
Niedzviecki errs by neglecting his readers' education in privacy technology and assuming that "Peep" has spread beyond anyone's control. Many of his nightmare scenarios could be averted if people thought ahead about how their drunken party videos might be viewed by a potential employer. Many more would never happen to people who better understood how to maintain control of the proverbial cameras. As Rosen argues in the afterword to the paperback version of "The Unwanted Gaze": "[I]n a decade or so, citizens will be able to choose from a broad menu of options . . . to protect themselves against the dangers of being judged out of context by taking steps to cover their own tracks."
That decade is almost up, and Rosen was right. We can't stuff the social networks and crime-busting cameras back in their boxes, but we can figure out how to encrypt our data. We can anonymize our Web surfing and read the fine print in our privacy contracts. And we can continue, as Rosen advised, to make a better case for why all that privacy matters.
"Candor ends paranoia," Allen Ginsberg wrote in the 1980s, before spying was quite so easy. In the networked world, it may be time to flip that aphorism on its head.