Nothing to worry about?

We've all heard the argument about government invasion of privacy before--if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about. It's an infuriating argument because it's so simple-minded, but it's fairly effective because most people consider themselves to be law-abiding citizens and of course no one would ever make a mistake when it came to them, right?

Meet Hasan Elahi, an artist and Rutgers professor who has turned his privacy over to the FBI and the world at large as a response to post 9/11 attitudes on security.

Hasan Elahi whips out his Samsung Pocket PC phone and shows me how he's keeping himself out of Guantanamo. He swivels the camera lens around and snaps a picture of the Manhattan Starbucks where we're drinking coffee. Then he squints and pecks at the phone's touchscreen. "OK! It's uploading now," says the cheery, 35-year-old artist and Rutgers professor, whose bleached-blond hair complements his fluorescent-green pants. "It'll go public in a few seconds." Sure enough, a moment later the shot appears on the front page of his Web site, TrackingTransience.net.

The Guantanamo line might sound like a throwaway if not for Elahi's name, but it turns out that is actually part of the reason he's doing this.
The Bangladeshi-born American says the US government mistakenly listed him on its terrorist watch list — and once you're on, it's hard to get off. To convince the Feds of his innocence, Elahi has made his life an open book. Whenever they want, officials can go to his site and see where he is and what he's doing. Indeed, his server logs show hits from the Pentagon, the Secretary of Defense, and the Executive Office of the President, among others.

That is exceedingly worrisome to me. Elahi has found a sort of freedom in living his life with utter transparency, it seems, but the key is that he's done it voluntarily. I don't want that kind of life, and neither do most Americans, I'd imagine. We get squirrely at the idea of police cameras in public places, after all, and we have no expectation of privacy.

Elahi argues that this is the next wave--living lives online so transparently that we put Big Brother out of business. I doubt it. We may be more comfortable now with a lower level of privacy--I certainly bare my soul online enough--but there are still those parts of ourselves we want to keep private. Elahi has a greater motivation to do this than the average person--he travels a lot and has been put on the terrorist watch list--so he may feel like he's gained freedom at the cost of privacy, but he's only gained that because he's done it voluntarily, and I imagine there are times he thinks about not pulling out that camera and feels beholden to it now. What worries me is that we'll move from having individuals do this sort of thing voluntarily to having it done to us.

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