June 16, 2013

In quest for security, many sense Big Brother

Mainers worry that a true sense of privacy could become a casualty in a world that's increasingly intrusive.

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

"Big Brother is watching you."

click image to enlarge

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer Holly Fent, shown cutting the hair of Peter McDonald of Scarborough at Hair It Is on St. John Street, recognizes that she can be a trusted “ sounding board,” but technology has eroded the personal touch that helped protect privacy for the previous two centuries.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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The phrase originated with George Orwell in his classic novel "1984," but the idea has touched a nerve across the country since the revelation that the National Security Agency engaged in wholesale surveillance of millions of U.S. citizens through a secret data-mining program. The agency used phone records, email and Internet search histories to gather information as part of its anti-terrorism efforts.

"You should not be surprised that your information is out there," said Dale Brooker, chairman of the Criminal Justice and Social Justice Department at Saint Joseph's College in Standish. "I'm not surprised. This is nothing new."

Some experts have maintained that such information has been collected for as long as the information has been accessible. And they say it will continue because Americans have accepted the idea of opening up private records and details of their lives to strangers all over the world by disclosing personal information on the Internet.

"Intelligence gathering has increased in its intensity because of the amount of information that's out there and available," said Brooker.

Donald Lynch, professor of psychology at Unity College, said much of the information has already been made available by people voluntarily. Bill-paying habits and other financial records, online shopping and social networking all convey a breadth and depth of personal information that consumers choose to overlook, he said.

"Central Maine Power knows when I get up, when I take a shower, when I do laundry," Lynch said. "It's kind of scary."

Still, nearly everyone agrees that a truly private life could be one of the casualties of the quest for security in a world made smaller and more intrusive through technology, Brooker said.

Several polls conducted last week indicate that Americans -- including those 18 to 29 years old -- are almost evenly split on whether the government should have access to phone records and other information about its citizens to fight terrorism. But many said they worry about exactly who would be targeted and just how much privacy would be lost.

Over the past half-century -- and particularly the past decade -- sweeping changes in culture, politics and international relations have erupted from what Brooker calls "social earthquakes" -- events or developments that dramatically change social life or people's perception of it. The civil rights movement and the swift transformation of technology, for example, each represented social earthquakes, he said.

And then there was 9/11.

"That was a global social earthquake," Brooker said. "This (NSA surveillance) is an aftershock of that."

Terrorism sparked an immediate, profound fear in Americans, Brooker said, producing the conditions that led to such measures as the Patriot Act and to monitoring and detaining those believed to be linked to terrorist groups.

With recent tragedies such as the Boston Marathon bombings, the need for more vigorous security seems even more compelling, he said.

'THERE'S A CERTAIN AMBIVALENCE'

But not everyone is comfortable with that notion. For many people, security suggests safety, not scrutiny.

"I think people are kind of torn here," said Monsignor Michael Henchal, a Catholic priest with decades of experience in keeping the private lives of parishioners confidential in the confessional.

As pastor of parishes in South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, he senses that these issues can often raise conflicting feelings, loyalties and questions.

"There's a tension," he said. "There's a certain ambivalence here."

With social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, for example, most people are aware that virtually anything about a person can be publicized, Henchal said.

"A lot of things about ... life are public that have never been before," he said. Almost everyone with a phone is automatically equipped with a camera. That fact alone can be used to share personal moments at family celebrations or dinner parties -- a harmless, even positive human connection.

(Continued on page 2)

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