Note: My weekly op-ed.
I will venture a prediction; every single person reading this column has things about them they would rather other people did not know.
If you’re lucky, it’s information that would merely embarrass you. If you’re not, you might have secrets exposure of which would put you at risk of losing your job, your friends, your marriage, or your life.
These need not be shameful secrets. You might not want it generally known that you have something worth stealing at home, for example.
Case in point. In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, the The Journal News in Rockland County, New York, recently posted an interactive map on their website showing the names and addresses of approximately 44,000 people in the area who had legally registered hand guns. The information was taken from the gun registry database obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request.
And that’s when the manure hit the oscillator. The newspaper’s office was flooded with angry phone calls and emails.
And irony of ironies, though police who reviewed the messages found none of them overtly threatening (it’s not illegal to tell someone you are very angry with them) management was so alarmed they hired armed guards for the building. Now it seems those guards are going to be a permanent fixture of The Journal Record’s office.
Opinion about the consequences was mixed at first. On the one hand, it was pointed out that burglars now knew which houses had armed owners waiting inside and could avoid them, to the detriment of unarmed homeowners.
On the other hand, burglars who want to steal guns now know just where to find them.
Burglars after guns are often more dangerous than those who just want your stereo. A thief who steals mass-produced commodities knows overworked police can spare little effort to trace something that is quickly lost in the market of cheap used goods.
But a handgun whose chain of ownership is broken and cannot be traced if found at a crime scene is a valuable item indeed to a certain kind of criminal. The worst kind.
Then an even more sinister development emerged. It turns out about 8,000 active and retired police officers are on that map, and inmates in the Rockland County jail have been taunting corrections officers by telling them their addresses.
One has to wonder what The Journal News Publisher Janet Hasson and Editor Caryn A. McBride were thinking. McBride said she believes knowing where gun owners live is in the public interest.
No, they were indulging an urge to be news makers rather than news reporters, an occupational hazard of the profession. And sell newspapers of course, although that seems to have backfired on them.
And since turnabout is fair play, enterprising bloggers are now creating their own interactive maps showing names and addresses of The Journal News staff.
Way back in 1999, Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, shocked and angered a lot of people by saying, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”
Well, “zero privacy” may be a bit of an overstatement, but the fact is McNealy was more right than wrong. Nowadays a lot of your life is an open book and more and more people know how to read it.
That same year author David Brin published, “The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom?”
Brin points out the genie of surveillance technology and openly available information is out of the bottle and is not going back in. But he said the ability to look at your life need not be tyrannical, if it works both ways.
He further pointed out that maintaining the privacy we desire is going to depend on a mutual agreement not to invade the privacy of others in ways we would not want ours to be invaded. A kind of Golden Rule for the Information Age.
I think that point has been made rather forcefully to Janet Hasson and Caryn A. McBride.