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Giving away your privacy is not such a great idea

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By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002


A couple of years ago I was asked for some medical information during a routine procedure, and said no.

I'm not a very private person. I've always lived in a fishbowl, as is suitable for those of us who sometimes make a living exposing others' secrets, and, in this column, have told a lot of people a lot more about me than they ever remotely wanted to know.

But I decided at that point that enough is enough.

"But the information will be totally confidential," said the young woman filling out a form. "Nobody who doesn't need to see it is going to."

I'm sure that promise would be of little comfort to the 4,000 AIDS patients in Pasco and Pinellas counties whose names were on a computer disc mailed anonymously to the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune in 1996 by the ex-partner of a public health employee, who was allegedly using the information for dating purposes.

And all of the folks whose private lives were spread all over the pages in the 50 boxes of unshreded documents marked "shred" and sold to WTSP-TV Channel 10 reporter Mike Deeson this week would feel equally comforted that only those who need to see highly sensitive information will.

It boils down to how much we trust the people to whom we give information about ourselves and the right to peek into our private lives.

My answer is, "Not much."

Yes, terrorism and pedophilia are bad things and, yes, we all want to see the good guys catch the bad guys, but the only thing likely to be abused more than a little power -- is a lot of power.

Now the FBI has sought and received permission to start grazing the Internet and visit chat rooms without having to demonstrate that the searches are part of criminal investigations.

It's not like law enforcement agencies haven't been doing that all along. Just about every large local law enforcement agency has an officer cruising the Net for pedophiles who think they are talking to a 12-year-old girl and wind up being handcuffed by a 42-year-old deputy who has arranged a meeting.

If there's any comfort in this for those of us who are a little hinkey about the constant erosion of civil liberties and an agency that seems to be playing the terrorism card at every turn, it is that the agents assigned to Internet duty will now have the privilege of surfing chat rooms and spending thousands of hours listening to drivel from semiliterate losers pretending to be a host of things that they are not.

I just love the idea of some clean cut young guy wearing a white shirt and tie whaling away at a keyboard for hours hoping that the skateboard enthusiasts in the chat room will stop saying things like "Sweeeeeeeeet!" long enough for one of them to slip up and reveal that he is planning to put LSD in the Washington, D.C., water supply, thereby vastly improving the coherency of those who control our lives.

All of this, of course, is allowable only for antiterrorist activities; we are promised by those wonderful folks who gave us COINTELPRO -- the operation aimed at infiltrating and disrupting organizations with weird goals such as the protection of civil liberties and the promotion of peace.

And, despite the agency's first director's penchant for keeping files of vast personal information about people in public office and in the public eye and investigating them for presenting threats to our nation such as (perhaps ironically, it turns out) homosexuality.

Nobody asked me. Nobody hardly ever does, but I would be happier if they spent a little more time figuring out how one of their agents spent more than a decade selling secrets to the Russians, after the Russians and his own brother-in-law tried to turn him in.

Maybe I'm wrong; maybe they would have caught former agent Robert Hanssen if he had been in a chat room saying, "Hey, I'm a federal agent and have some secrets to sell. Any foreign powers out there interested?"

If you think giving away another one of the few crumbs of the Fourth Amendment we have left is a good idea, then go for it, but, in the meantime, try sending a few e-mails and engaging in a little chat about a "shipment," due at your house next week.

Don't worry about the black helicopters; they won't be there long.

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