By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
The Reporter, Vestal NY 

Technology vs. privacy


Remember the opening of the “Mission Impossible” TV show? The assignment was recorded on a tape that self-destructed so no record of the conversation would exist. That gave everyone deniability if the mission went awry. It’s far more difficult, though, to make a thing disappear in contemporary society. Between email, text messages, online stores, GPS trackers and reward cards, it’s possible to track our movements and purchases.

I’ve joked that if you want to keep a purchase secret, go to a store and pay for the object in cash without using the store’s reward card. Unfortunately, now that won’t always help: many stores have cameras taping everyone who walks through their doors and recording everything they buy. The Jewish Community Center’s front door notes there are cameras in the building. The last time I purchased clothes, the dressing room’s sign said my activities were being monitored by someone of the same sex. Some cities affix cameras in public spaces for surveillance purposes.

As with almost everything, there are good and bad aspects to this technological invasion. The reason law enforcement officials were able to uncover the identities of the Boston Marathon bombers so quickly was due to the photographs of the crowd. People may be less likely to commit crimes if they know their actions are being taped, although this isn’t always true. Just check out the number of people who tape themselves or their friends doing something illegal and posting the resulting video on YouTube.

Of course, this lack of privacy can also have a detrimental effect on our lives. First, while the web is great for spreading information, people often don’t take the time to confirm whether or not what’s being passed on is true. I’m sure almost everyone has embarrassed themselves by forwarding an e-mail that contained outdated or erroneous information. However, that’s not the only problem. There are things we want to keep secret, not because they are illegal, but because they’re personal. There are also important questions to consider: will employers check out applicants’ political beliefs before hiring them? Will the government keep a closer eye on your activities because you visited a particular website? Will your health insurance company turn you down for treatment because of something you posted on Facebook or another website? Not only is this possible, it’s already occurring.

We need find a way to balance the good of the general public versus the rights of the individual. The problem now is that technology is changing so quickly that many people are unaware of just how public their private information is, or how easily it can be accessed. This goes beyond being careful about what you post on your Facebook page or say in an email. What is needed is an independent group to explore the ramifications of what should be made available and under what conditions groups can access that information. This is far too important to leave to the politicians. Unfortunately, the issue is so politicized, an independent study may no longer be possible.


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