For the last few days reading about the Petraeus case I knew it was only a matter of time before commentators would ring the privacy bell. This afternoon the NYT published the first of what will undoubtedly become many comments.
What are we to make of privacy in the digital age? This article raises the most obvious thought: simple investigations often have unintended consequences because of the exposure of so much tracked information. My phone has rung many a time with a question from a network administrator along the lines of, "I was asked to work on Professor X's computer and found -----, what should I do?" The answer, of course, depends on what the content is, whether it violates a law or policy. We have the net admin's back because we require the reporting of such information as matter of institutional policy, which we govern entirely as a private university.
As a government employee, did Director Petraeus have a Fourth Amendment violated? Certainly not in the role in which operated. I do not know their policy per se, but obvious concerns about national security with employees of the Central Intelligence Agency suggest that their correspondence should be an open book within business reason in the agency. Right or wrong, puritanical or not, the United States culture does no longer turns a blind eye to marital infidelity among its political leaders. The rest is now history.
But what is the future of privacy in the digital era? Here is my quick wish list: Update the Privacy Act of 1974; pass federal data breach privacy laws that raise compliance to the level of comprehensive privacy laws of personal information in the rest of the developed world, and amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. At the same time, let's keep Federal Trade Commission fires burning under the feet of Internet companies such as Google and Facebook with respect to their privacy policies and use of personal data as well as notice to users about any changes to those policies. Finally, will some senators and congressmen please open hearings on the propriety and practices of companies that collect, combine, profile, sell and market information about consumers? The multidimensional privacy issues involved in consumer privacy given the exponential power of information technologies and voracious appetite of the market place for data in an information economy is so staggering I cannot neatly list my wishes. But I should would appreciate a full and fair hearing on the issues.
And in the meantime, if you are in or seek public office, for heaven's sake, don't cheat on your spouse!