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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Protecting our privacy

Over the past year or so, I’ve been wrestling with the question of why privacy matters.

Or, more specifically: why privacy matters to me.

Why am I bothered by revelations that the National Security Agency has been searching the emails and phone calls of Americans without warrants? Why am I troubled by the fact that social media companies such as Facebook are so unconcerned with their users’ personal data? Why do I find my iPhone’s ability to transmit my location to Apple Inc. so disconcerting?

The surveillance state has become so massive that I often wonder whether anything can be done about it.

But lately I’ve been encouraged.

There have been some interesting developments, and even some victories.

Last week, New York severed ties with inBloom, the Atlanta-based private company tapped to store student data online, and it’s safe to say that this never would have happened if not for resistance from educators and parents.

Supporters claimed inBloom would enable schools to better monitor student progress and craft individualized lesson plans, but detractors, such as myself, wondered whether the database’s benefits were being overstated to justify collecting vast amounts of personal information. There were also questions about whether the data would be secure, and how it would be used.

Supporters said the data — which would have included grades, discipline records and standardized test scores — would be safe and that it wouldn’t be misused; detractors were, to put it mildly, skeptical.

I’m heartened by the state’s decision to terminate its relationship with inBloom.

But the battle over student data tracking isn’t necessarily over.

News reports suggest that the state Education Department will likely turn to BOCES to store student data. Will the people who opposed contracting with a private company for that purpose be OK with storing data via a public entity? My guess is no, but I could be wrong.

Another positive development was the Department of Homeland Security’s decision earlier this winter to cancel its plan to develop a national license-plate tracking system.

Officials said the database would help catch criminals; opponents said the movements of ordinary citizens who had done nothing wrong would be tracked.

Law enforcement and private companies are already collecting and storing license plate data, and there have already been questionable uses of the technology; Virginia State Police recorded the license plates of every vehicle from Virginia that attended President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, as well as license plates at political rallies for Obama and then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

As with New York’s decision to drop inBloom, the abrupt cancellation of the license plate database plan was the result of public outcry. Once people got wind of it, the Department of Homeland Security was faced with questions about how the data would be used, and whether there would be any safeguards to protect people’s privacy.

What I find most encouraging is the growing opposition to widespread data collection and surveillance.

For a long time, the standard response to the steady erosion of privacy rights that has taken place since Sept. 11 was something along the lines of “I’m not doing anything wrong. Go ahead and read my email — I have nothing to hide! I’m not a criminal!”

As if the only people who might desire privacy are criminals.

But ordinary people desire it, too.

That’s why they put curtains on their windows, and seek out private places for conversations with friends and family. It’s why they don’t always disclose their medical histories, and why they close the door when they go to the bathroom.

It can be hard to articulate why privacy matters.

But we know that information can be misused, and power can be abused.

We all have flaws. Do we really want strangers combing through our emails, our phone records and recording our movements? Do we really want private corporations collecting personal data from grade school on and storing it in a centralized location?

For more and more people, the answer is no.

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at

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