Defending Privacy Against Incursions of the Media

At the intersection of the public’s rights, wants and needs to know, where does the media draw the line with respect to privacy? Recent celebrity scandals, such as Tiger Woods’ extra-marital affairs or Charlie Sheen’s meltdown and subsequent ouster from Two and a Half Men have raised concerns in the Zeitgeist.

Woods’ personal plea for privacy on his website at the height of the scandal underscores the tensions.

This is a private matter and I want to keep it that way. Although I understand there is curiosity, the many false, unfounded and malicious rumors that are currently circulating about my family and me are irresponsible.

Ironically, he and his fiancé Lindsay Vonn recently felt compelled to share a set of romantic photographs on the very same site.

Moreover, Woods would later validate much of what was written. The truth trumps the defamatory. He had been irresponsible.

Certainly it is within the rights of individuals to broker information, particularly about themselves. In that spirit, David Carr of The New York Times argues that Julian Assange takes this to the extreme by offering information to the media in metered portions as dalliances to boost his stature as a news source.

Celebrities and politicians are, however, held to a higher level of transparency. The former may serve as role models and the latter must answer to the public. As a consequence, their burden of proof in defamation actions is held to a higher standard than that of laypersons.

Scandal and moral turpitude, however, go hand-in-hand. It seems obvious that good behavior will never draw the attention of the media or interest of the public. The golden rule, treating others with respect, never incites ire. There are rewards for good behavior.

Yet invasions of privacy do occur. The paparazzi make a living by contriving stories about celebrities caught in innocent poses or semi-clad.

What then is the best defense against incursions of the media?

John Palfrey and Urs Gasser of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University offer an answer. In their book, Born Digital, the two argue that we must all, proactively, take control of our digital dossiers. In effect, we are our own spin-doctors.

The problem is that this and the prior generation were born in the digital age. Woods’ and Sheen’s generation grew up acclimated to authoring in the digital realm, starting in the mid-1980s. Almost every statement and image is now encoded as a digital artifact. In the military they used to say, “If it wasn’t written down, it didn’t happen.” Now, in effect it is written down for posterity with a keystroke or a button press.

Moreover, with the advent of social media, digital artifacts and messages are promulgated all too easily. Don Tapscot, in concordance with Palfrey and Gasser argues in Grown Up Digital that we are so acclimated to the new media that we’ve let our guard down.

We volunteer too much on the Internet, and once it’s out there, it gets shared in a multiplicity of ways. Much sharing of our data is involuntary. The first generation of Tweets is even archived at the Smithsonian.

The content of our Facebook pages, records of our Amazon purchases, and even our Google searches are data-mined. Many web-based email providers, including Gmail and Hotmail are non-FERPA compliant.

The best defense against privacy incursions for both laymen and celebrities is not so much a good offence, but rather to be guarded in what one puts out to the Internet.

Palfrey and Gasser argue that we have failed to instill a sense of vigilance about information sharing in our youth that has left them vulnerable into adulthood.

To inculcate a sense of digital-age awareness we need to institute a curriculum on acceptable & fair use, privacy, security, multiculturalism and `netiquette. Adults need this training as well, even if late in life.

Privacy International, an NGO underwritten by numerous governments and Google, points out that this is an international issue. There are over 450 definitions of privacy and 10,000 state, provincial and national laws in effect in approximately 100 countries.

A looming concern is that corporations funded by the U. S. government to develop surveillance technologies in the interest of national security have been marketed abroad. These systems have been used to prop-up military regimes and corrupt governments.

Examples include the police systems used by Idi Amin’s government in Uganda to tag and corral suspected citizens. South Africa’s notorious passbook system supported Apartheid. Guatemalan death-lists were automatically tendered out by computer systems developed in the U.S.

The west is making a fortune on these technologies, some euphemistically labeled “telecommunications systems.” Security companies funded in 1994 under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) were required to incorporate “back-door” sub-systems that enabled covert sharing of data.

Many of the hacking schemes used to monitor citizens are now being used to infiltrate government databases and garner corporate intelligence.

The same technology that enables social networks empowers Assange. Self-indicting Tweets led to Woods’ undoing by the media.

Vigilant self-monitoring may be our only defense against incursions on privacy.

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