Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#62, November 23, 1999


by Marylaine Block

Lately it seems we're all worried about our privacy. It's unnerving to think our doctors could tell our employers about our newly-diagnosed, expensive medical condition, that the new banking law permits banks to share our personal financial information with insurers and brokers, and that online vendors might share our private tastes in books and videos with other vendors or the FBI.

When an e-mail rumor said a major credit firm would sell our credit records to anyone who asked, the company's server crashed under the deluge of protests. A new e-mail warning that our government can peek into our e-mail looking for subversion urges us to stud our messages with keywords like "terrorism" and "anthrax" to overload the spy system.

But whether the government is reading our e-mail or not, our employers can and are. What we write at work has been ruled in court to be not our property, but theirs.

And everywhere we go, there are videocams looking at us. If we jump a red light or fail to pay a toll, streetcorner videocams may catch us in the act. Videocams track our movements through stores and malls, even watch us in dressing rooms as we try on clothes.

We've started demanding protection of our privacy. We want web vendors to tell us whether they're selling our financial information and buying preferences, and to whom. We've sued states that planned to sell our drivers' license records, schools and businesses that planted videocams in restrooms, and hospital staff who disclosed our private medical records.

Celebrities admit they're fair game for public curiosity up to a point, but Brad Pitt is suing trash tabloids that crossed the line, using telephoto lenses to take pictures of him naked in his own home. Bill Bradley talks freely about his public life, but won't discuss his religion because that is personal.

After all, our lives are nobody else's business, right? We have a right to privacy.

Unless, that is, we want to go on 20/20 and share our pain with Barbara Walters and 60 million viewers. Yes, brave people all over America, shy though they normally are, are coming forward with their tragic stories in hopes that people can learn from them, and that nobody else ever has to suffer what they've experienced.

Thanks to them, we know what it's like to be on the phone with your daughter when a stalker murders her, and what it's like to have your son kidnapped, or your wife shot at work by a vengeful ex-employee. We watch the McCaughey septuplets frolicking, and learn how their parents cope and where they get their money.

Thanks to those shows and Larry King and Don Imus, no political candidates or their spouses can go without public confession. Tipper Gore told us about her struggle with depression, and John McCain's' wife, who had a problem with prescription medication, had to explain and apologize on national television. Diane Sawyer (apparently unfamiliar with the concept of loyalty, or the advisability of keeping your private opinions of your boss to yourself) kept demanding that Al Gore declare himself utterly horrified by Bill Clinton's actions.

Ordinary people too are often thrust into the limelight against their will. Tragedies -- the crash of a jetliner, the collapse of a bonfire pile killing college students -- are predictably followed by reporters shoving microphones in survivors' faces, demanding to know how they feel.

But there's no lack of ordinary people who gleefully offer their private lives, no matter how squalid and embarrassing, to the audiences of Jerry Springer -- women who seduced their daughters' boyfriends, or men who justify competing at rape as if it's a sporting event. On MTV's The Real World, and the web's Voyeur Dorm, people even agree to have every aspect of their lives filmed for public entertainment.

Is there a paradox between this kind of exhibitionism and public voyeurism, and our demands that people stop spying on us and trading our personal information against our will? Not necessarily.

Because privacy, ultimately, means WE're the ones who decide what people can know about our private lives. And that is what we're afraid we're losing.

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