We give up our information

It has been troubling to watch and listen during the past few weeks as we have learned more details about government surveillance programs that have been collecting telephone and Internet records of billions of Americans.

While the outrage has been great, it seems that Americans remain conflicted about how much of their information they are willing to give up at any one time and to whom.

For instance, a poll released conducted last weekend by The Washington Post and the Pew Research Center showed that Americans generally think it’s OK for the government to be able to identify and investigate terrorist threats, even though that may compromises their privacy.

That said, a CBS News poll conducted last Sunday and Monday revealed that 75 percent of those surveyed approved of the government collecting telephone records of Americans suspected of terroristic activity. Even more interesting is that 38 percent approved of the federal government collecting the phone records of ordinary Americans – and only 58 percent disapproved.

Why those numbers aren’t greater remains a mystery. But here’s one theory – while we Americans are quick to preach about our right to privacy, we are more than willing to share information about our lives on a daily basis. We’ve become comfortable with giving up data about ourselves. Just look at any social networking site, for example.

Need another example? Look at your keyring. You more than likely have a loyalty card hanging from it (or have the number and barcode saved in one of many apps that are available for your smartphone.) Numbers indicate that between 85 and 90 percent of adults have at least one of the cards, and many have more than one.

And why not? They can unlock a myriad of values, and a simple swipe can mean big savings. That’s good for the consumer, right? Even better, those numbers on that card trigger coupons to be printed with your receipt that offer discounts on items you are more than likely interested in and even ensure that you receive coupons and offers in the mail.

Many department stores also offer special discounts based on the clothing lines and other personal items you most often purchase.

Such tracking can have benefits that go beyond saving a dollar here and a dollar there, too. For example, if a particular item needs to be recalled, the information allows retailers to know exactly who purchased a particular item, when and where he or she purchased it and whether or not that specific item is affected and then contact the consumer directly to notify him or her about the problem.

So far, so good. But what would happen, say, if the government would determine that some of that information was vital to the public well-being? What if, say, a health czar, for instance, would determine that people who consume foods the government has determined to be bad for you should not be entitled to receive health care and retailers were ordered to provide that information, information that people had willingly provided?

Yet another example of how we are willing to give up information about ourselves? Go back to your smartphone – we have come to take for granted that we can be standing on a street corner in any town, push a button, tell the phone we need to see a list of steakhouses within walking distance of where we are and, in just a matter of seconds, have that list appear.

It’s able to happen only because the phone and the servers it connects with know exactly where we are, and we don’t mind sharing that information when it makes our lives easier.

It’s also what makes the choices we face every day about what information we want to share vs. the parts of our lives that we prefer to keep private grow more and more difficult. And while most of us agree that information used by the government to protect us is data well collected, we’re just not sure where we need to draw that line in the sand about how far that same government – or anyone, for that matter – should go to gather those details.

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)