YOU are the editor of a local newspaper. A reporter on your staff comes to you having obtained (by legal means) one of the following:
• Police records of arrests for drunken driving;
• The personal details of all the employees of local clinics that perform abortions;
• The subscriber list of a survivalist magazine with pronounced racist overtones;
• The names and addresses of food stamp recipients in your community;
• The donors to a group that promotes L.G.B.T. rights;
• The names of husbands accused of infidelity in divorce suits, along with the identities of the alleged lovers;
• Addresses of homes where pit bulls are kept.
The reporter proposes to publish the names and home addresses and map them on a large graphic, all part of an article on “The [drunks/abortionists/racists/poor/gays/cheats/scary dogs] next door.”
Some of these lists might strike you as fair game. (Many community newspapers publish D.U.I. arrests, presumably to shame the accused into driving sober.) Others probably make you uncomfortable or indignant. You might find that the tricky part is articulating why: what is the boundary between a public service and an invasion of privacy?
My hypothetical editor’s choice is inspired, of course, by an unhypothetical event: the decision by The Journal News in White Plains to map the names and addresses of 33,614 handgun permit holders in two surrounding counties, for a project called “The gun owner next door.” I’ll return to that decision, but the striking thing was the volume and venom of the reader backlash: thousands of comments — and not only from gun owners — overwhelmingly outraged, some of them suggesting that Journal News journalists deserved to have their identities stolen, their homes burgled, their children taunted or, predictably, to be shot.
When it comes to privacy, we are all hypocrites. We howl when a newspaper publishes public records about personal behavior. At the same time, we are acquiescing in a much more sweeping erosion of our privacy — government surveillance, corporate data-mining, political microtargeting, hacker invasions — with no comparable outpouring of protest. As a society we have no coherent view of what information is worth defending and how to defend it.
When our privacy is invaded in the name of national security, we — and our elected representatives, afraid to be thought soft — generally go along quietly. Our complacency is reinforced by a popular culture that has forsaken Orwell’s nightmares for a benign view of authority. In many of my own guilty-pleasure television favorites — “The Wire,” the British thriller series “MI-5,” the Danish original of “The Killing,” the addictive “Homeland” — surveillance is what the good guys do, and it saves the day.
Meanwhile, as Al Qaeda wanes, our surveillance state continues to grow more intrusive, with woefully little oversight or accountability.
Last month Julia Angwin of The Wall Street Journal disclosed that Attorney General Eric Holder had authorized the National Counterterrorism Center to copy and examine pretty much any information the government has collected about you. In the past, the agency couldn’t store information about ordinary Americans unless they were suspects in or party to a specific investigation. Under the new orders, flight records, lists of Americans hosting foreign-exchange students, financial records of people seeking federally backed mortgages, health records of patients at veterans’ hospitals — pick a database, and this obscure agency has permission to study it for patterns that ostensibly predict terrorist behavior, and to share it with foreign governments, whether or not you are suspected of any wrongdoing. The new rules were subjected to robust official debate — all behind closed doors.
Likewise, while we were all distracted by the dance on the fiscal cliff, the 112th Congress in its final days whisked through a renewal of the law that governs eavesdropping by American intelligence agencies on Americans’ phone calls and e-mail traffic. A couple of senators made modest attempts to hold the eavesdroppers more accountable by, for example, disclosing the number of law-abiding citizens whose communications have been intercepted. Their efforts were voted down.
“The Obama administration’s position on privacy is basically ‘Trust us, we’re good guys,’ ” said Daniel Solove of George Washington University, whose book “Nothing to Hide” challenges the myth that law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear from government snooping. “That’s exactly what Bush said. And it’s also the same thing that any despot says. We shouldn’t have to trust.”
Rigorous, independent oversight, he added, not only protects against abuses but also helps assure that what we do in the name of security actually works. But it doesn’t happen if we don’t demand it.
The government, of course, is not the only — not even the most aggressive — invader. You can take your pick of the ways Facebook and Google are monetizing you by serving up your personal profile and browsing habits to advertisers for profit. Some of this feels harmless, or even useful — why shouldn’t my mobile device serve me ads tailored to my interests? But some of it is flat-out creepy. One of the more obnoxious trends is the custom-targeting of that irresistibly vulnerable market, our children.
When our personal information is exploited this way, we may grumble, or we may seek the largely false comfort of tweaking our privacy settings, but we feel helpless before the mystifying rush of technology.
You would think the one sort of invasion just about everyone deplores was hacking. But even there we are ambivalent. When Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids were caught pillaging the voice mail of celebrities, the public response was muted; when it turned out that they had hacked the phone of a 13-year-old murder victim, the pitchforks and torches came out.
Or take the Steubenville case. In Steubenville, Ohio, authorities charged two members of the high school football team with the repeated rape of a passed-out-drunk 16-year-old, but did not charge the many others who allegedly cheered them on and made videos. So the online activists of Anonymous took it upon themselves to hack into private accounts, recover deleted and incriminating videos, and make them public. Amanda Marcotte wrestled with the moral dilemma on Slate: “By stepping in and holding people accountable, Anonymous stands a very good chance of taking action that actually does something to stop rape. But: This type of online vigilante justice is potentially invading the privacy of or defaming innocent Steubenville residents, and even if everything published is true, there are very serious legal limits to the Anonymous strategy.”
As a journalist, I’m more often on the side of the invaders than the invaded. I cherish the freedom to publish. But the freedom to publish includes the freedom not to publish when the cost outweighs the benefit.
Which brings me back to The Journal News and its gun project. I sympathize with the paper’s effort to dramatize the commonplace reality of gun ownership at a time when the subject is so sadly on our minds. I don’t buy the gun owners’ assertion that the disclosure is an invitation to burglars in search of firearms; on the contrary, the publicity sends criminals the same message as those front-door notices of your home alarm system: Try next door. It’s also conceivable that the attention will prompt some owners to lock up unsecured weapons.
But when you are going to make a sizable population of law-abiding citizens feel violated, you have to ask yourself, what is the offsetting gain? In this case, I think, not much. The information The Journal News provided its readers is so far from complete as to be misleading. The public records identify only legal handguns. They tell you nothing about the neighbor who has an equally legal and equally lethal rifle or shotgun, let alone an illegal weapon. The publication has not spurred a healthy debate; it has merely escalated a shouting match, and given the N.R.A. a new rallying cry. The outcry may even provoke state legislatures to withdraw gun databases from public records, so they will not be available when they might really be useful. It’s a close call, but I’d have found a different way to make the point.