At Large

Rethinking privacy

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A teacher of mine, an American Maryknoll nun, once shared a piece of advice her mother had given her: “Don’t put down on paper what you don’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times.”

No matter where you write it—in a letter to a friend or lover, your diary, an e-mail message, your blog, or even your tweet—someone (other than your intended recipient or recipients) is bound to read your words and may take offense. Or worse, may decide that your words are indeed deserving of space in the New York Times or in the Inquirer, or of being broadcast to the wide, wild world of social media and the Internet, where they will live forever and ever, downloadable and open to any and all comments.

It still surprises me how people expect their privacy to be respected on the World Wide Web. It seems extremely naïve to believe that “privacy” options could protect one from adverse reactions or comments, or from having incriminating words and images reproduced and reaching those you really don’t want to reach.

True, those St. Theresa’s Cebu students may not have wanted or meant their teachers or administrators to see photos of them in bikinis. And I do agree it was a private social event and had no connection whatsoever with their school or with their identities as students. But c’mon. If you upload “incriminating” photos on Facebook or some other social site, you’re not just exposing yourself, you’re also asking a great number of people to view your photos and perhaps “like” them or comment on them. That some of those folks turned out to be the prudish nuns and censorious teachers of your school was just bad luck, although, in the larger scheme of things, bikini pictures are not exactly deserving of expulsion or suspension.

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FACEBOOK founder Mark Zuckerberg once famously declared that in the age of social media “nobody has any privacy.” In this world, everybody’s life is open to scrutiny and comment, or at least the parts of one’s life that one chooses to put out there.

And nobody knows the truth of this better than former CIA director David Petraeus, who decided to step down from the US spy agency after agents of the FBI uncovered incriminating e-mail messages he had sent to a (former?) lover.

The scandal took the sheen out of an illustrious military career and brought to a premature end a promising political one as well. Incredibly, Petraeus had managed the most difficult of political twists: earning the approval of both Democrats and Republicans. In fact, his name was already being mentioned as a possible Republican nominee for the presidency in 2016, a possibility that now seems to have withered on the vine even before it could blossom.

But the fate that befell Petraeus should send chills down the spine of not just superspooks but even ordinary folks like you and me. If other folks—and not just FBI agents—can access your personal files and expose your weaknesses and flaws, then all of us are vulnerable, our secrets, lies, opinions, and rants subject to public exposure, and us to ridicule, shame and blame.

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JOE Nocera, a columnist for the New York Times, writes that “the Petraeus scandal could well end up teaching some very different lessons.” He observes: “If the most admired military man in a generation can have his e-mail hacked by FBI agents, then none of us are safe from the post-9/11 surveillance machine. And if an affair is all it takes to force such a man from office, then we truly have lost all sense of proportion.”

At heart, the scandal can be traced back to the cozy relations between military bigwigs and socialites in Tampa, Florida, where two important bases are located. Jill Kelley, the Tampa hostess who chose to focus on wining and dining the uniformed brass, enjoyed unprecedented access to the generals, including Petraeus. This may have provoked the “threatening” e-mails allegedly from Paula Broadwell, the author of a Petraeus biography who had or is having an affair with the ex-general.

In the course of investigating the e-mailed threats (courtesy of an FBI agent and friend of Kelley who managed to convince his superiors to pursue the investigation), the FBI discovered the incriminating messages from Petraeus to Broadwell. If the head of one of the most powerful espionage agencies in the world could leave himself so vulnerable, one wonders what other secrets could still lie in wait, setting up landmines for other officials.

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NOCERA looked up the cyber-stalking statute and now says a crime has been committed “when e-mail ‘causes substantial emotion[al] distress’ or places the victim in ‘reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury.’” The FBI has worked hard, says Nocera, “to make Broadwell’s e-mails as threatening as possible. But once they leak out, as they surely will, I strongly suspect that we’ll see that the law was just a fig leaf.”

He concludes: “I wish the president had said that although General Petraeus had made a mistake in his personal life—an all-too-human mistake, made by millions of people every day—the consequences of that mistake should be dealt with by him, his wife and his former lover. I wish he had said that the affair should not trump his decades of public service, or stop him from continuing to serve. I wish he had said that the Justice Department’s inspector general was going to conduct an inquiry into whether the FBI had acted appropriately in handling Kelley’s complaint.”

And we—Americans or not—should debate what Nocera calls “the ease with which the government can look at our e-mails and peep into our bedrooms.” The anti-cybercrime bill could stand some rethinking, don’t you think?

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