Our precarious privacy online

From Facebook to camera phones, U.S. privacy law is behind the times.

Last week, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., was one of four U.S. senators to sign a letter asking social networking website Facebook to repeal recent changes to its release-of-information policies. Members of Congress and Facebook users alike need to understand that this website is not a free and open public forum. It is a business, and their business model is to share usersâÄô consensually offered personal information in order to generate, at the minimum, advertising revenue. Asking Facebook to respect its usersâÄô privacy is asking them to waive the siteâÄôs cost of admission. More importantly, if Franken and his colleagues are serious about protecting their constituentsâÄô privacy âÄî and they should be âÄî they can work to establish a firm legal foundation for a national right to privacy. Privacy isnâÄôt technically considered a right in the United States. Its few protections are drawn from a convoluted series of court precedents based on a patchwork of clauses from various constitutional amendments. This all-too-tenuous penumbra right (one âÄúcast by the shadowâÄù of the Constitution) is so weak, apparently, that concerned senatorsâÄô first recourse in defense of privacy is to write obsequious letters to CEOs. FacebookâÄôs recent policy change only highlights the need for a right to privacy that has firm constitutional footing. The past decadeâÄôs dramatic technological leaps in communications and surveillance pose a threat to AmericansâÄô privacy that the countryâÄôs founders could never have dreamed of. Citizens, for their part, need privacy protection not only from corporate forces but from their own government. The (noncorporate) people of this nation must demand the right to privacy.