"Grandpa, what's 'privacy'?"
"Well, little Andy, back when I was a boy, people weren't allowed to read your mail, monitor your computer, see what you've Googled, tape your telephone, copy your medical and bank records, take your photo without your permission or sneak into your house."
"Couldn't sneak into your house! How was the government supposed to know what you were up to?"
"That's the point. Privacy is the right to be left alone _ especially by the government."
"Dad's right. You really are getting senile."
Forgive me for rehearsing that little conversation, but it's one I suspect I'm going to have one day. Through technology, justifiable security concerns and outright paranoia, privacy is a dying concept. Perhaps its most visible manifestation is the airport security line where the once-proud inheritors of James Madison and George Mason stand humbly, shoeless and beltless, while government employees poke their intimate belongings.
Recall William Pitt's ringing assertion of a citizen's right to be secure in his home and belongings:
"The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter; the rain may enter; but the King of England cannot enter _ all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!"
Now that President Bush has asserted that he needn't be bound by even the faint privacy protections in the Patriot Act, you're lucky if you don't come home to find the King in your Barcalounger watching your wedding videos and reading aloud from your diary.
And if it really was a crummy tenement, the local government would have condemned it for an upscale mall and you would be looking for someplace else to live.
William Pitt was an Englishman, so it's a small irony that London now is the world leader in monitoring people through closed-circuit TVs that do such things as automatically run the license plates of passing cars through a database.
"You're always on CCTV somewhere," a London police officer told The Wall Street Journal, which noted that New York City officials were studying how London does it. Smile, you're eternally on candid camera.
It was recently disclosed that Google is battling a Bush administration subpoena for all the requests the search engine received in a single week _ a number surely in the tens of millions _ plus 1 million randomly chosen Web site links. Think now: What did you Google last year? Or look up on Yahoo, which also got a subpoena as did other search engines?
The administration's vague justification is that it is trying to determine how best to protect children. Of course. Like warrantless wiretaps for the National Security Agency and warrantless sneak-and-peek searches for the FBI, these intrusions always start off with the best of intentions. But inevitably it elides into whatever piques the eavesdropper's curiosity or sparks someone's political animosity.
And it's not just the government watching you and listening to you. Private firms surreptitiously plant spyware in your computer that reports everything you do on your computer and gathers up your Social Security and credit-card numbers and ships them off to commercial databases _ the better to serve you with the goods and services you really want, of course.
The great axiom of privacy was always "a man's home is his castle." To which now would be appended, "If he needs a castle, he must be up to no good, so let's search the place and bring him in for questioning."
Maybe I'd better rehearse another conversation.
"Grandpa, what's 'privacy'?"
"Get out of the way, Andy. You're blocking my view of the television _ and its view of me."