From an access perspective, privacy seems to be on the ascendancy while access seems to be waning. I'm sure that a privacy advocate would see that balance in virtually the opposite direction.

That being said, the fact that there are such divergent sentiments about the relative merits or demerits of access vs. privacy strongly suggests that our political and social leaders need to engage in -- at all levels of government -- a debate on the public policy of these two worthy values, which butt heads like tectonic plates along a fault line.

After serving as the reporter for a significant privacy symposium in Hartford, Conn., I concluded that both government and business can protect and respect individual privacy by adhering to fair information practices. Only the press came across as the proverbial bull in the china shop, unwilling to be regulated -- and rightly so under the First Amendment -- but also unwilling to act responsibly when it came to invading people's privacy. Instead, the press seems to hunker down into defensive discussions of legal niceties -- almost everyone who sues the press for invasion of privacy loses -- and refuses to see the forest for the trees.

However, within the past several weeks there have been reports of an individual suing because they, or someone chillingly like them, was depicted in a movie without their permission. Also, recently re-elected New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has apparently brought an action against New York magazine for using his name in an advertisement; Giuliani was not depicted as wrongly endorsing a product, but instead he was referred to within the context of his public persona.

Both of these suits are essentially privacy actions. Even the press has a legitimate defense in actions such as these.

Golden Rule

Historically, privacy has been maintained by trust among friends, neighbors and associates who, even though knowing an individual's darkest secrets, were willing to keep a confidence; this was, perhaps, in line with the Golden Rule: "Do to others as you would have them do to you."

It wasn't that others did not know about our personal affairs or idiosyncrasies; it was that they were willing to keep them quiet. To the extent that small-town life did not allow for the keeping of such secrets, the individual just had to live with that.

Recorded transactions were most likely already a matter of common knowledge in small towns. Everyone knew who owned property, who voted, who had been arrested, who paid taxes and how much. As a society, access to most of that information was deemed a public good, a trade-off for living as a community and a civil necessity for keeping track of community life.

Rules Change

The accelerated speed of technology has changed much of that and has made us increasingly anxious about the volume of personal information that can be obtained on every one of us. As small towns gave way to larger cities, fewer people in the community knew about our public comings and goings. Your friends and neighbors might still know you like a book, but strangers who had nothing in common with you except for the fact that they lived in the same city probably did not. As a result, our public record information became known to an increasingly smaller subset of the larger community.

Government continued to intrude on our lives, and the debate over big or small government is another can of worms completely; but what the growth of government meant in information terms was that more information about us was continually required and demanded. From a privacy perspective, even with a solid statutory basis of fair information practices, the best way to protect ourselves against runaway availability of personal information is to make sure government and business

Harry Hammitt  |  Contributing Writer