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Kathleen Parker: No place where you can escape data stalkers

  • Washington Post
  • Published Friday, June 21, 2013, at 12 a.m.

At a party a few years ago, a young reporter bounded over to my cluster of social nodders and, with the breathlessness of a born tweeter, chirped: “What’s the new hot thing?!”

Without disturbing my mascara, I replied: “Anonymity.”

She looked befuddled.

I continued: “To be Googled and to have nothing turn up. That’s hot.”

Too late, alas, even then.

In these post-Snowden days, the notion of anonymity is ludicrous. But so it has been for some time, though recent disclosures bring pause even to the habitually inured.

It is one thing for Mrs. McQueen and Mrs. Harry G. Brown, my elderly dowager neighbors from childhood, to spy on each other through their porch screen doors. It is another for the National Security Agency to compile records of one’s phone calls.

While Americans bemoan their loss of privacy – and allow me to ululate right along with you – it is helpful to recall our own role in this gradual process.

That is, our apparent willingness to show-and-tell every little thing in the quest to be known. Fame and celebrity are by comparison higher callings than whatever compels strangers to display, say, their tongues (or other points of anatomical interest) in the public forum of social media.

Now, suddenly we’re offended that national security operatives are following our behavior patterns?

Whether Edward Snowden, the self-admiring 29-year-old who decided to save us from ourselves if not our enemies, is hero or villain will keep us amused until time tells. Most likely he’s a hybrid of the two, the heroic concentrated mostly in his having spawned an urgent and overdue debate about the costs of privacy in the service of security.

We love Google Earth because we can see our very own houses on our very own laptop screens. Wow. But who else is watching?

When I visited then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson at his post-Sept. 11 “Command Center” – a vast room filled with gigantic plasma screens and computer arsenals manned by military personnel – he pointed to my South Carolina office building on one of the screens.

I asked Thompson if he could tell me whether my assistant was there. “Not yet, but soon,” he said.

A couple of years ago I asked Google CEO Eric Schmidt what options were available to people (like me) who might find his Street View a little creepy. “You can just move,” he said.

Well, no, you can’t.

There’s no habitable place left on the planet where one can move to escape the data stalkers. Speaking of which, a peeve more personally concerning to me is online shopping.

Take one little tiny peek at an item of even remote interest and you are owned by The Thing. Once I Googled a purse that, turned out, cost $1,200. I moved along.

Not so fast, hissed the serpent.

A full year later, I’m reading about immigration reform and suddenly the $1,200 purse slithers into view, imprinting my brain with temptation I didn’t invite.

But, yes, I did. I Googled. I ogled. And, though I resisted, I am henceforth captive to an automated data pimp.

Know this: Whatever you have done online is known. Whatever you will do will be known. And thanks to me, not even Mrs. McQueen and Mrs. Harry G. Brown, bless their dear, departed hearts, can ever be anonymous.

Kathleen Parker is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

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