Spy on Thy Neighbor

Swapping privacy for street justice and internet fame

| February 1, 2007

You parked in a bike lane. You tossed that wrapper out your car window. You didn't smile. Websites and TV shows dedicated to exposing transgressions -- minor and major -- are turning '15 minutes of fame' into '15 minutes of shame.' And they're part of a trend that shows that, in many cases, it's ordinary camera-toting netizens prying away our privacy -- not some Orwellian government.

In 'The Snoop Next Door' (subscription required), The Wall Street Journal's Jennifer Saranow profiles sites like PlateWire.com, where drivers can post the license numbers of reckless drivers, and Flickr.com, the popular photo-sharing website where photos accompanied by comments like 'TalksTooLoud' expose poor cell phone etiquette. Some sites let women warn each other: as Ms.magazine reported last summer, HollaBackNYC encourages women to post photos of men who make unwanted advances. There's also Don'tDateHimGirl, where women lambaste their bad dates with photos and comments such as 'Isnt honest about cheating!' (A defamation suit is pending against the site.)

Vigilante websites are the online, grassroots extension of the televised hidden-camera exposes that have thrilled viewers for years. Making headlines on that front of late is the Dateline NBC segment 'To Catch a Predator.' Writing for Radar, John Cook argues that the program -- in which would-be internet predators are lured by child actors (and adults posing as children online) to a location where they're caught on camera, interviewed, and arrested -- addresses a real concern about online child predators among the public. 'But,' writes Cook, 'they can be stopped -- and are stopped all the time by local police stings -- without parading them across our television screens for titillated and enraged audiences to gawk at between commercial breaks.'

Our willingness to trade privacy for a 21st century rendition of street justice may be due in part to our changing expectations of privacy. In a poll conducted by Zogby International on behalf of the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee, 91 percent of the 1,200 adults surveyed said that 'our expectations of privacy have changed due to technologies and the Internet.'

We're even willing to give up a fair amount of our own privacy through social networking and photo-sharing sites like MySpace and Flickr. In an article for the Futurist (only an abstract of the article is available online), Patrick Tucker suggests that self-surveillance -- recording and exhibiting oneself on the internet -- has a greater effect on our privacy than do public security cameras. Tucker quotes privacy expert Amitai Etzioni, who says, 'People have become very willing to disclose things for a number of reasons -- for 15 minutes' fame on television, for convenience, for coupons and special marketing incentives, and so on.' According to Etzioni, all of this amounts not to our loss of privacy but to our loss of privateness -- the sense of what's too personal to air in public. A few minutes watching home videos on YouTube is all it takes to confirm Etzioni's thesis.

Go there >> The Snoop Next Door

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