The End of Privacy
March 2009

by Ron Steinman

You may wonder how the following column about privacy impacts journalism. If you take too much time thinking about it, you had better start asking yourself questions concerning the profession we are in. I believe we must serve as a watchdog. If we do not, the liberty and freedom we profess to worship might be lost in the future. Sounds high toned? It is because that is how it should be.

This is about privacy and how our worship of new media through technological advance is, at this moment, a threat to much of what I hold dear. There is little enough personal space that remains that is sacred. If privacy were an animal, it would be an endangered species. The threat from someone or something invading our privacy is real. I can only imagine the anger at me among new media worshipers. I can hear them screaming now to get privacy off the list that serves to protect some of our hard-earned rights.

Google has come up with another advance in software by developing and marketing a new concept in the hope of changing the way we live, and thus how we act. Not bad on the surface, but Google should not get a free pass because of who it is. Google has unveiled the latest in intimate surveillance techniques with a program called "Latitude." Before I go further, here are a few definitions for the real meaning of the word and concept. The first defines latitude as an imaginary line around the earth, especially important if you navigate a plane or boat. Room to maneuver, another definition, speaks for itself. Another says latitude is a degree of tolerance, especially if you are a free thinker. One dictionary says it also means a lack of restrictions - good if you are an aspiring hippie, a modern slacker. Then there are some meanings that play with independence and freedom as synonyms for latitude as a concept.

OK, what is "Latitude"? It is a new cell phone tracking system that allows anyone with Google's software to pinpoint the location of another person, also on a mobile phone. Here is how Google describes the new application.

Control privacy: You can share, set, or hide your location – or turn off Google Latitude – from the privacy menu. You can also hide your location or share only a city-level location with certain friends. My question: Can we expect people to comply or will this new tool become a plaything similar to social networks, which this is not?

Contact your friends: Quickly contact your friends with an SMS, IM, or phone call. You can also get directions to lead you to your friends. My question: Don't people have something better to do? It is another example of the fear of being alone that is currently widespread in society.

Create a status message and upload your photo within Latitude. It also syncs directly with Google Talk. Check your friends' status messages to see what your friends are up to. My thought: Just another example of the overreliance of connectedness beyond all reason. I can only surmise that with society in the mess that it is in, many probably think they will not survive without being connected. I think otherwise.

Share locations: Location sharing starts only when both you and a friend agree. Invite friends via email or easily add them from your Gmail contacts. My thought: Maybe the ostrich has it right and that keeping one's head in the sand is sometimes not a bad idea.

Those who live with and by Facebook, MySpace and all the other social networking sites may feel "Latitude" gives them another tool to keep in touch. I've said it before and repeat it again, that in the 20th century and now the 21st century too many people have lost the ability, desire and even the knack of living within him or herself. Everyone it seems wants to be connected and to share that connectedness. For me these people, and there are millions and millions, give up the essential self that sets us apart from each other. Considering the numbers involved in social networking, I recognize I am in the minority.

Yes, I use Google as my main search engine. It works best and is very fast. I also occasionally look at Google Maps to see where I once lived, but that, too, gives me a queasy feeling, whenever I peer down at streets from my past and worse, when I try to find where someone I know, either family or friends, now lives. It is as if I am eavesdropping, a trait I abhor. My problem is that "Latitude" is another potential invasion of my privacy. Despite what Google says, it is naïve to assume that Google will not allow anyone to abuse the very nature of "Latitude." There are people, including those in advertising, mass media, kids with too much time on their hands, hackers, many in business who feel this new tool will allow them to go where no man has gone before, to deeply probe the soul of anyone who signs up to use "Latitude." Many will disagree with me. Parents have been on TV extolling its virtues because they think that by using "Latitude" they will always know where to find their potentially wayward children. And who knows whom else in who knows what situation. Police and other protectors of our liberty also probably think highly of the concept. I am sure there are journalists, especially the stalkers among us, who welcome this new tracking system. If someone is adrift in the woods or in the mountains, there is little doubt that "Latitude" can work its wonders and rescue those who are lost. Is that enough to say "Latitude" is the greatest invention since sliced bread? I think not. Take a breath. Pause. Big Brother is here and we should be ever vigilant. Find a way to shield us from his All-Seeing Eye.

Despite all the wonderful creations of Google, perhaps it is time to think of it as the evil empire, the way many of us, myself included, see Microsoft. Do not get me wrong; Microsoft still has a special place in my unholy book of anti-individualism. It's a big world and surely we can find space in it for two competing evil empires. But Google is running hard to capture first place and there is probably little or nothing any mortal can do about its drive to make us look alike, think alike, and act alike. Not everything Google does has an evil tint. But as it grows bigger and stronger, Google seems to have a sense of entitlement that allows it do whatever it wants. As a Luddite might say, beware of invention for the sake of invention.

I wonder what else Google has up its sleeve.

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© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks at Ron Steinman's