06/08/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Privacy Crisis: The Walls Have Ears -- and Eyes

The grizzled old lady used to sit on her doorstep all summer, watching. There was only one central street in the small town, and passing by her home was inevitable. I made sure to put my shoes back on before her house; as the elderly "town crier," she would certainly tell my disapproving mother that I'd been walking barefoot on the road.

It takes a village to raise a child, and there are no secrets in a village. The anonymity of the big city was a welcome relief from the nattering neighborhood where one's every move was fodder for discussion and gossip. The metropolis provided a freedom of thought and action that seemed impossible in the confines of the closed community. As a young woman, I relished that freedom, away from prying eyes and scolding tongues.

It was, of course, not to be a long-lasting oasis. The urban playground has existed for a century or two, as compared to the tight groups in which most people lived for thousands of years. One's only option for privacy in the past was the life of the solitary nomad, roving from port to port. The life of the adventurer was often more the story of Jean Valjean than Walden Pond.

The cry is heard today that we are losing our privacy--oh, my! Yes, we are. Involuntarily, most times: through traffic cameras, security monitors and online spyware. But also voluntarily, though social media, opt-in websites, viral videos, and incentive programs. Whether it is by our government, our banks, our employers, our health insurers, our city departments of transportation, our retail merchants, and even our family members, we are being photographed, videoed, classified, targeted, marketed, and data-based on a daily basis. Privacy has gone the way of the transistor radio--an entertaining, but brief blip in the human condition.

It is likely that in a few years, none of us will be able to go "off the grid" any longer. Law and order advocates (and gossipmongers) will welcome this reality as a way to control or sequester unwanted behaviors. We will all have to pass by the "doorstep" of the curmudgeons and put on our shoes and our company manners. Or take off our shoes, TSA, anyone?

For some, the lack of privacy will nourish their narcissism. For most of us, we will continue in our routines, bemoaning the time lost to bureaucracy, but secure in our conventionality as we benchmark our behaviors, tastes, and desires through online polls. We will lose nothing ... that we have not already lost.

As a young woman, I wore hats, big floppy ones in a variety of shapes and colors. Under each hat, I tried out different choices for who I would be that day; a way to experiment with who I would become. For many, like me in younger days, life's laboratory -- with its histrionic backdrops, its standing ovations, and its hard knocks -- provides the breeding ground for our adult development. Sure, the rigid structure of a planned existence comforts many as they face their life paths. But, what a pity if the flowering of youthful exploration was quashed by the risks of public discovery, embarrassment, and shame.

Middle age eventually turned me into a predictable perennial, who welcomes the warmth and security of the greenhouse. Go ahead and look, there's nothing to see here. But, what if the flowers of my youth had been perceived as weeds by the observing "gardeners" and I'd been castigated--or worse? Could I escape my global village like the adventurers of yore ran from their towns? To what ports could I flee, if they're all USB?