The Tangled Tale of Personal Privacy

Two stories on the same day in The Washington Post show the extreme pressure points on maintaining personal privacy. 

One describes U.S. government efforts to protect against potentially devastating international cyber attacks; the other points out user frustration with privacy policies by digital giants such as Google.

A story headlined, "White House, NSA weigh cybersecurity, personal privacy," talks about legislation to allow continuous, routine surveillance of civilian Internet activity.

Users won’t be able to opt out. If they don’t like the change, Google has said, they can avoid signing into their accounts or stop using Google products altogether, 

That’s easier said than done, experts say in the other Post story noted. For more than 350 million people using Gmail around the world, moving to a new e-mail program is perhaps more inconvenient than changing a mailing address or a bank account.

"Google unified privacy settings unsettle users" traces the concerns of users worried about the accumulation of personal data based on their searches, email content and downloaded videos,' the article says.

Intelligence officials call their eavesdropping an "unobtrusive" way to monitor for cyber attacks. Google defends its data collection as the price of offering an array of free online services.

Both pose hard bargains.

Cyber attacks by a foreign adversary or an activist gang could cause enormous disruption, not just to the U.S. government, but also to everyday infrastructure on which we all depend.

The convenience and seamless connectivity of online tools may be worth allowing Google and digital media sites to build data profiles on us to sell to advertisers.

The question comes down to where are the bright lines when personal privacy is invaded too far and too deeply?

The Obama administration has warned against excessive intrusion by government officials in pursuit of real-time clues to cyber-terrorism. Google officials say users can switch services. Is that adequate assurance? Probably not, but it may be all the assurance we get at this point in the evolution of the digital age.