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Is There an Expectation of Privacy in Public – Or Even in Private?

December 29, 2012

Governing Magazine reports that some cities are considering monitoring of conversations on public transit, including Traverse City, Michigan, where this author recently stayed overnight while on a work assignment.  That hits home; it is one thing to read of news happening in far-off places; it is quite another to pass it on the street.

The question before us is whether we have a right to privacy, and if so, whether it extends beyond the curtilage of our dwelling-places into the public arena.  Our federal Bill of Rights enumerates certain of our liberties; the Ninth Amendment specifically states that the enumeration of certain rights does not disparage others held by we, the people.  Those rights are generally understood to be the ancient ‘Rights of Englishmen,’ ours by inheritance as inhabitants of former English colonies, as ‘Common Law,’ the most famous exposition of which is Blackstone’s.  Thus, some rights are ours, as a matter of common custom and usage.  Ivan Illich may have had something like this in mind when he penned ‘Silence Is A Commons’ in criticism of the invasion of public spaces by commercial and political speech, amplified technologically, that forces itself upon our consciousness through the sheer ubiquity and volume of the noise-making devices at their owners’ command.

Thus, another ‘commons’ – our right to private conversations in public spaces (assuming that we want to keep them private and speak quietly to each other out of earshot of those whom we don’t want to be privy to them) – gives way to the creeping surveillance state.  Measures like ‘Intellistreets‘ and utility company ‘smart meters‘ only add to the ability of governments and large private-sector organizations to systematically watch and record all that you do.

You do no wrong and have nothing to hide, you say?  That’s beside the point.  They have no right, unless we allow, by active consent or passive acceptance, them to do so.  And in a country where everyone arguably commits three felonies a day, you may be ‘guilty’ of more than you think.  The governing principle of the free society our forbears left us (as flawed as it was, especially as concerns the treatment and rights of minorities) made government answerable to the citizen; as voters, prospective jurors, and local activists, it is our duty to ask questions and to hold those accountable who would wield this kind of power over us.  If we do not, we may shortly lose the ability to do so.  (This extends to utility companies, too, as they are heavily regulated and answer to our government, which in turn answers to us; beyond this, shareholder activism is an avenue this blog will explore at a later date as a means for holding publicly-traded companies accountable for their actions.)  Actions have consequences; ours – and inaction in the face of known danger is an action – will have consequences for ourselves and for our families, communities and the Republic itself.

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