How much privacy do we have – or should we have? I think about these questions from time to time. On one day it will be because I’ve read yet again that nameless forces are collecting all my phone calls, or Internet visits, or shopping purchases. On another the stimulus will be a phone call asking me questions about this and that; as a former survey researcher myself, I am usually sympathetic, and take part more or less happily. On a third, the issue will be identity fraud, which has happened to me a couple of times in connection with credit-card purchases overseas.

We do have a Privacy Act (1988), and it seems to work reasonably well; I usually encounter it when it prevents my doing something  that would be useful to me, or the group with which I am associated! Privacy is a funny thing – we want it for ourselves, but wonder why others do in particular cases when it would be no problem for us.

The famous are always searching for it, though to a degree their fame comes in part through much of their working and private life having been conveyed to us through the media. It is hard not to feel some sympathy for them. If you can’t go out your front door without encountering a reporter then you are, in a sense, under a kind of house arrest. There are completely ordinary things we need to do, like shop for toilet paper, or get petrol, or take the dog for a walk. To be followed by photographers and reporters on such occasions cannot be much fun.

Perhaps the really famous don’t do such mundane things, but Princess Di seemed to have little private life at all towards the end of her time. Privacy laws don’t help the famous much. Barbra Streisand objected in 2002 to the taking of a photograph of her beachside property in California, which had been done for a study of coastal erosion. When she complained, there had been only six downloads of the photo, two of them by her lawyers. Within a month of the complaint another 420,ooo downloads had occurred. That incident has caused the coining of the term ‘Streisand effect’ to refer to one’s attempt to conceal information actually making matters much worse.

All technological innovations come with some unknown capacities to use the device for ill as well as good. The mobile phone allows all sorts of good things, and also the recording of schoolyard violence. The Internet makes life difficult for governments and large corporations, and that may be good for us as citizens. It is useful also for terrorist organisations. But then their communications can be hacked. But then so can ours…

Under common law we have no right to privacy. There is a tension in our demands to be left alone and our need for others, and what they can do for us, and some of that tension has been dealt with in the Privacy Act. When in doubt my own course is determined by old-fashioned courtesy or politeness, which is based on the dear old Golden Rule: how would I want to be treated by another in such a situation?

I don’t think I am being a Grumpy Old Man in saying that there doesn’t seem to be as much courtesy about as there was when I was young, though there may be more tolerance for the strangeness of others. Perhaps that is a new form of respect for the privacy of others.

What does annoy me, and will continue to annoy me, is the pursuit of people with microphone and camera as they approach or leave the courts, thrusting the microphone under the victim’s nose, and asking the most inane question: ‘Are you sorry for what you’ve done?’ I don’t care what the person is said to have done – this is discourteous in the extreme. It also suggests that the court of public opinion is no less important than the courts of law.

Perhaps there was too much privacy in the days when I was young. Houses were smaller, dinner parties were rare, visiting was for families – and one could long to be away from it all and able to be ME! Today there is an abundance of ME, and one can long for a bit of privacy from it.

I’m sure Cicero, or someone like that, puzzled over the same thing generations ago.


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