Privacy shmivacy
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  • Privacy shmivacy

My sister just flew into Chicago on an evening flight that after one delay and another landed at two in the morning. There were no apologies from the crew as the passengers shuffled off the plane, just as there had been no complimentary food or beverages from the crew either during the flight or during the hour the plane sat fully loaded at its gate in Los Angeles. “Why do people put up with this kind of treatment?” my sister wondered. Because we’ve all made a Faustian bargain, I said. When we fly, all that matters is price. The airlines know that and treat us accordingly.

But that’s not to say we’re cool with inconvenience. Sometimes convenience is all that matters. Today’s digital technology allows us to communicate with each other and with retailers by tapping a few keys. The price we pay for this convenience is to live lives that are an open book. We’ve traded off our privacy.

On Monday, at the SXSW Conference in Austin, the Pew Research Center released results of its survey of the steps American adults have taken to shield themselves from the government surveillance programs Edward Snowden revealed in 2013. Slightly over half the Americans polled said they were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about this monitoring. Which means the attitude of nearly one American in two is, whatever.

Should suspected terrorists be monitored? Yes, say 82 percent of the 475 Americans polled (a fairly small sample with roughly a 6 percent margin of error). Should American citizens? No, say 57 percent.

But what have Americans done to protect themselves? The measures we’ve taken sound fairly paltry when listed by Pew, as are the numbers of people who have taken them. For instances, 87 percent of Americans have heard something about the surveillance programs but of these, just 17 percent say they’ve changed the privacy settings on the social media they use.

Eight percent have deleted social media accounts. Eight percent communicate online less and on the telephone more.

Mary Madden, a senior researcher at Pew, said its research shows “half of Americans think it would be difficult for them to find tools and strategies to help them be more private as they use technology. The vast majority have not yet adopted some of the more advanced tools that would encrypt their communications or make them less visible when they are using the internet.”

These tools include special search engines, e-mail encryption programs, browser plug-ins, proxy servers, and anonymity software. The adults polled were asked about each tool, and in every case most of them—at least two persons in three and more often about four in five—had either not considered using the tool or had never heard of it.

Over all, reports Pew, 30 percent of the adults polled have taken “at least one step to hide or shield their information from the government,” with adults under 50 far more likely than adults over 50 to have acted (40 percent to 27 percent). But the tools are new. Will these precautions eventually sweep the nation or will fatalism prevail? My sister might have stumbled out to my car swearing never to fly that airline again, but she didn’t.