Ronald Bailey frets that mobile technology has ushered in an era of mass surveillance (“Your Cellphone Is Spying on You,” January). He is right to worry about the government tracking our movements and reading our emails without first getting a warrant issued by a judge and based on probable cause, as the Fourth Amendment requires. But Bailey’s warnings about “geoslavery” and “creepily invasive” private surveillance are overblown.
Privacy is an individual preference; people vary widely in what they wish to keep secret and from whom. Ultimately, whether private “surveillance” merits fear or indifference depends on who is doing it and for what purpose.
Consider the banks, doctors, mobile service providers, and countless other private actors who routinely collect sensitive information about each of us in the course of voluntary exchange. Despite this ubiquitous monitoring, few people avoid credit cards and rely solely on prepaid disposable cellphones. For most of us, it seems, the benefits of being “watched”—including greater access to credit, more-relevant advertisements, and better online search results—outweigh the loss of autonomy that some may experience from being observed.
As long as our legal system holds private entities to the promises they make to consumers and offers recourse to victims of particularly odious observers, private surveillance and individual freedom can peacefully coexist and thrive. The real threat to liberty comes from government officials who want to know our secrets not to serve our needs as consumers but to deny us our freedom as citizens.
Associate Director of Technology Policy
Competitive Enterprise Institute
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