Las Vegas Sun

December 22, 2014

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OTHER VOICES:

Living under the high-def digital spyglass

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“You’re so 20th century,” a friend laughs, when I complain about Wii Street U, the new Nintendo app that lets us scuttle about neighborhoods, inspecting the homes of strangers like nosy crabs, without the bother of getting off the sofa.

Released on Valentine’s Day, Wii Street U is little more than a glorified Google Street View, only the views are magnified on our TV screens with 360-degree coverage. Digital home invasion is nothing new, thanks to zillow.com and Google Earth, but the creepiness of it seems to expand exponentially with the resolution of the images. Our addresses, square-footage totals, and mortgage amounts have forever been public records but have never before been presented as entertainment. Still, my friend assures me that I’m part of the shrinking few who care about this.

So what if Wii Street U puts her house on a stranger’s flat-screen? So what if people can go to spokeo.com and instantly see her age, parents’ names, phone number, education, marital status, Amazon wish list, Facebook posts and email address — billed as “all” her personal information — for $3.95 per month?

I say, “Invasion of privacy”; you say, “Search engine specialized in people-related information from public sources.” That’s Spokeo — or, Spookeo, as I prefer to call it.

Yes, except for those touchy New York gun-permit holders who complained when a newspaper plotted their addresses on an online map, we’re supposed to be past the discomfort of transparent living in the digital age. We’re all Google Earthlings here. It’s supposed to be fun, not disconcerting, when I punch in my mother’s address 1,000 miles away and see a clear picture of her home with a strange car in the driveway. Then the strange car turns out to be mine, Massachusetts plate clearly visible, and sober reflection on the wonders of technology gives way to a not-completely-unfounded worry that Google is following me everywhere.

Just because we’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get us. “Private citizens” are anything but in the 21st century, and the cost of anonymity is rising. If we’re troubled not only by public exposure of what used to be our private lives but also by strangers profiting from the details, our options are few. Rent, don’t buy. Shun reward cards and pay full price. Get a post-office box for correspondence. Embrace privacy controls and opt out with the ferocity of zealots.

Research shows a generational divide between those who value privacy and those who abhor it. When Target started mailing infant formula and diaper coupons to a teenager last year, exposing her pregnancy to her father, millennials should have started howling about consumer tracking like their grandparents do. But denizens of social media who broadcast all their thoughts and activities, even meals consumed, fret about anonymity, not privacy.

“Don’t act creepy! Don’t act creepy!” the good-hearted zombie tells himself in the film “Warm Bodies,” and we wonder why the free market won’t do the same. But we’re learning to live with pervasive low-level creepiness, like when we visit Drudge and the ads hawk the last books we inspected on Amazon. Unsettling, yes, but who has the time to opt out or, even more onerous, to change our habits, to try to live once again behind a comforting veil?

It may not even be possible. Three years ago, a writer named Evan Ratliff tried to disappear as part of a contest for Wired magazine. Anyone who could find him in a month would win $5,000. He changed his hair and his name, told no one where he was going, ditched his cellphone, car, job, business, life.

Strangers found him in 24 days.

We Luddites worry, not because privacy matters so much now, but because we don’t know how much it might in the future. For now, it’s a free country, one in which Spokeo’s excesses are policed by a vigilant public and, hallelujah, the Federal Trade Commission. (Complaints about credit information and pictures of private homes resulted in changes to its offerings and a fine.) Vigilance remains a fine deterrent.

Jennifer Graham writes for the Boston Globe.

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