Editorial: Safire the Fear Monger

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Author and columnist William Safire had a piece on privacy in The New York Times last week that is a shoo-in for the hysterical essay hall of fame.


In drumming up support for opt-in legislation requiring marketers to get explicit permission from consumers before they trade lists of names and other marketing information, the ominous piece, dubbed "Age of Consent," pulls just about every alarmist trigger imaginable:


"When you pay for your supermarket purchases with a credit card, everything you buy is remembered by the computer, including your name. The information is then sold by the store to marketers who want to target your tastes or to someone who may not wish you well.


"When you browse the Internet, you may think your visits to offbeat sites are anonymous, but an army of Big Brothers is recording your every click, selling a dossier on you to prospective employers or potentially predatory neighborhood snoops.


"When you equip your car with a snazzy navigation device, or breeze through toll booths with an E-ZPass, you are telling buyers of 'location wireless' data exactly where you are. That data can be retrieved and used against you in lawsuits a generation hence."


Funny thing: A similar whereabouts-recorded-forever argument can be made against the camera.


Safire's piece gets better:


"In any of those instances, your privacy - a free American's right to be let alone - has been stripped away. Some people don't mind; they like to get mail from strangers, are unconcerned with the sale of their Social Security numbers to potential identity thieves and profess to never have anything to hide.


"But the believer in personal freedom is saying to the compilers of dossiers: ask me first. Before following my movements and recording my habits, get my approval - my informed, written, advance consent."


He continues: "We want a large red button next to the slot for our credit card at the checkout counter that says, 'I consent.' If we choose not to push it, the store may not sell or otherwise use the facts about our transaction."


Actually, far more beneficial would be a large red button the rest of us could push to whisk folks who share Safire's beliefs to a newly formed country - a portion of France, maybe - where they can create their own anonymity-based economy. Call it Safiria - a magical place where the phone never rings except with welcome calls from Mom, mailboxes contain only handwritten letters carrying good news from distant kin, and businesses find and keep new customers with only volunteered information.


Want to start a nonprofit to save endangered Safirian unicorns? Forget it. Lists of donors to similar causes aren't available here. Like most people, Safirian donors rarely give the required permission for their names to be passed on. Those resulting phone calls from other nonprofits are so annoying.


Like those of most privacy advocates, Safire's tired arguments rely solely on hypothetical scenarios.


Yes, if an E-ZPass user cheats on her husband and must cross a bridge or two to do so, the husband potentially can use her bridge-crossing patterns to nail her in court. But maybe she should pay tolls in cash when she's going for an adulterous romp.


And yes, my insurance company probably can find out fairly easily that I prefer smoking rooms for an end-of-day cigar when I travel, or that I still buy bacon. But I'm not trying to defraud my insurance company by lying to get a less-risky rating.


And exactly what army of so-called Big Brothers is recording my every click and selling a dossier on me to potential employers or potentially predatory neighborhood snoops? Wouldn't it be easier, cheaper and more productive for the neighborhood snoop to go through my trash?


In a final call for opt-in-only marketing data exchanges - as opposed to industry-supported opt-out, where trading names is OK unless consumers ask to be removed from lists - Safire finishes his piece with a false choice:


"Americans will either insist on a libertarian Age of Consent or succumb to Big Brother's Age of Surveillance."


Libertarians believe in nothing close to Safire's so-called Age of Consent. They have argued all along that when a value-for-value exchange takes place between two private entities, both have equal claim to the information surrounding that transaction. (If I buy a lawnmower from Sears, why should I have any more right to the information surrounding that transaction than Sears? I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer to that question.)


Libertarians also argue rightly that businesses by definition can't be Big Brother because they don't control the police or the military.


With the huge audience and inherent respect that a platform like the Times gives Safire, his views on privacy would be funny if they weren't so dangerous.


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