In a famous phrase, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once observed that, at least with respect to the government, the right to privacy gave citizens "the right to be let alone." That right is being eroded, says journalist Sykes (Dumbing Down Our Kids, 1995, etc.).
According to Sykes, the Information Age has placed privacy, which has always been precarious, in further jeopardy by making the most intimate information available in a couple of keystrokes. While in the past privacy has been most at risk from governmental intrusion, this is no longer the case. Sykes catalogues ways that commercial applications, which track everything from consumer preferences to medical histories, have begun to erode the private sphere. Many of these collection efforts have good intentions, such as promoting public health or collecting unpaid child support. Once these databases have been compiled, however, they are subject to unintended uses and abuses. For instance, genetic testing conducted to help at-risk individuals avoid medical complications can just as easily be used by insurers to exclude high-risk applicants from coverage. What do Americans think about all of this? The answer seems to be, not much. Sykes is clearly frustrated by our lack of alarm in the face of a problem that has dire implications for individual autonomy. He suggests that our apathy stems from a combination of forces, ranging from our talk-show "tell-all" mentality to our sense that technology has become so ubiquitous that struggling against it is futile. What can we do? Sykes sensibly acknowledges that attempts to carve out legislative protections for individual privacy are unlikely to succeed. Rather, he recommends that we take a modest first step: begin by placing a higher premium on our own privacy.
While Sykes's reach is wider than it is deep, he poses the questions that we must address if we are to prevent a continued erosion of personal privacy.