The Death of Privacy

For Sen. George Allen, some Los Angeles police officers, and Britney Spears, being caught on tape this year was bad news.

But they're celebrities or public officials. What about you? What about your privacy?

I was shocked to get my issue of Reason magazine showing a picture of my office on the cover. Reason did this for every subscriber to show how easy it is, with readily available satellite technology on the Internet, to invade our privacy. Cameras on Earth are even more intrusive. They're everywhere now.

I visited Wilmington, Del., where police officials were proud to show me how they used cameras to spy on people in their town. They say this has reduced crime, but it's also reduced our privacy. But what's new today is what can happen to the video.


Thanks to YouTube and a dozen other Web sites such as Myspace and Facebook, the images can spread, invading your privacy further.

CNN anchor Kyra Phillips went to the bathroom during a presidential speech, forgetting that she still wore her microphone. Mixed in with the president's words, CNN viewers learned what she really thought about her brother and his wife.

"Oh, yeah. He's married, three kids, but his wife is just a control freak," Phillips said.

Her family might never have known about it, but because people post so quickly on the Web these days, her mistake has been viewed by nearly a million people. She even went on the "Late Show With David Letterman" to make fun of herself.

"Like you've never gone to the bathroom and had it broadcast on national television?" she joked while doing the show's "Top Ten" list.

On the Web, the mistake will live on permanently -- and so might yours.

For example, if you sing to yourself, badly, and your little cousin puts it on YouTube, your mistake will be easily searchable. Type in nose picking and there are 40 pages, and almost as many for singing in the shower.

Big Brother's Not the Only One Watching

Your privacy is basically blown. That's why the media run scare stories warning of Big Brother and Web attacks.

Aleksey Vayner wants to warn you about another risk. The Yale student applied for Wall Street jobs by sending out a link to his video resume with his traditional resume, thinking it would help him stand out from all the other applicants.

But the seven-minute video included boastful statements, showing him lifting heavy weights, karate-chopping a stack of bricks, and dancing. He sent the video to half a dozen banks, and someone at one of them forwarded it and his personal information to someone who put it on the Web.

Within days, he started getting e-mails about it.

"What I see is these huge chains of messages that have been forwarded to each other," he said.

Today, a million people may have seen it. He's been mocked on news programs and on the Web. The exposure has, he says, ruined his life.

"All of my private information is on the Internet," he said. "I receive hundreds of harassing messages. … I have to change telephone numbers. I have to get new e-mail addresses. … I have to change bank accounts."

He complained to YouTube, which promptly removed his video, but then someone else posted it. … Again and again. People at his college even dressed up as him for Halloween.

"People would call you douche bag, a liar. … They want to beat you. They want to deport you. They want to throw you out of school," he said. "All of my private information is on the Internet. People are using my name and identity for some dating Web sites. People are applying to get loans under my name. You know, I receive hundreds of harassing messages, and for a period of time it, it was pretty scary. … You start wondering what are the consequences, you know. Will any of these crazy people actually try to pursue these actions?"

He believes that his dream of working in investment banking is over, and that Wall Street is closed to him.

"Is it possible that all this publicity will turn out to be good?" I asked him.

"So far it's been like going through hell," he said.

As Technology Surges Ahead, the Law Lags Behind

Vayner now has a lawyer and is considering suing the bank that he believes initially forwarded his resume.

"For some reason the focus has been on me and the resume, which I think is very unjust," he said. "I think the focus should be on the simple fact that one of the top financial institutions in the world violates privacy and sends out very personal information out to the public."

But suing won't restore his privacy. His attorney, Christian Stueben, says that despite their efforts, Vayner's video resume will never come off the Internet.

"It'll never come off," Stueben said. "The law has not caught up with the technology that people are using."

"I'm simply a college senior. I never intended nor wanted any of this publicity. This publicity is not only stressful, it's extremely time consuming. It's very costly, and I'm not the only one who's affected. It affects hundreds of people who are close to me as well," Vayner said.

Jeff Jarvis, director of the New Media program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and author of the blog, is sympathetic to Vayner's plight, but says all the hand-wringing about the death of privacy is overblown -- "chicken littles" is what he calls the worriers.

He points out that most of what's on the Web people put up voluntarily.

The new attitude is: privacy -- who needs that?

"The truth is, on the Internet, if you don't reveal some of yourself, you won't find friends. … Facebook and MySpace and all these companies are being built on the notion that you can find friends because you find people who are like you. And you establish that friendship by telling them stories about yourself," he said.

But the stories the kids tell often show them doing dangerous things, illegal things such as taking drugs. Don't they worry that this will get them into trouble?

"Young people just have a very very different view of privacy than people in my generation," Jarvis said.

"When I was a kid, diaries were still sold with locks on them. … Now, more likely, a kid is putting a diary up on MySpace, or on their own Web site or blog, and running to school every day, bragging, you know, 'I got 20 hits on my diary,'" said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

Too Much Information?

Stephanie Klein has made lots of friends by blogging about her life. She writes about everything and posts pictures of herself as a single woman partying, hanging out with friends, and even dressing up in the bedroom.

She writes about a lot of things many people consider private -- her abortion, miscarriage and sexual experiences.

"It takes … a lot for me to get embarrassed about anything," she said.

And that may be why her blog, Greek Tragedy, gets about 300,000 hits a month.

"I get so much back from people, from total strangers saying … you really helped me because you wrote about how pissed off you were at your husband or whatever it is. You made me realize that my relationship's normal, too. … So that's why I put myself out there," she said.

And what about privacy?

"What's that?" she said with a laugh. "If you have the power to tell that story in your own words, you're never afraid, 'Oh God, what if someone finds this out?' 'Cause you've already put it out there."

"I think in 20 years. … Everybody is going to have such an Internet rap sheet of one thing or another, that nobody is going to be able to cop too much attitude," Thompson said.

Klein gets hate mail, though, and some say she reveals too much.

"I've received e-mails wishing me -- that I get cancer and that I don't find it until it's too late," she said.

"There are schmucks in the world. Yes, there are people who can do bad things. That's always been the case. Maybe they have a few more ways to do bad things now, but so what? I think we shouldn't judge the Internet, based on a few bad things that happen," Jarvis said.

That was most people's opinion about the Web, and the omnipresent cameras. Lighten up, say many experts.

But what about Aleksey Vayner, who was humiliated everywhere, I asked Jarvis.

"True. … So what do you propose we do about that? Should we shut down the Internet? Of course not. The street has bad things going on, but we still venture out onto the street," Jarvis said.

Klein's glad she lets it all out online.

She recently wrote a book, "Straight Up and Dirty," based on her blog and is currently writing a television pilot for a show based on her experiences.

Her intimate blog also attracted the attention of Phil, a man she met through her blog and eventually married.

"It was the most amazing thing to meet my husband through my blog. He saw what I did, he saw who I am, and he still wanted to be with me. So that was like the best," she said.

And as her blog will tell you -- in detail -- she got pregnant, and this month, gave birth to twins, and just four days later she was blogging again.

"Is there such a thing as too much information?" I asked her.

"Probably, although not for me. … I pretty much share it all," she said.

And despite those warnings that the Internet strips away your privacy, which it can, it can also bring people together.