The blurring lines between the public and the private

March 17, 2014

The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is, most likely, a tragedy for the crew and 239 passengers who were onboard the plane when it vanished over a week ago, while the search for it has become a gripping whodunit and wheretheheckisit for the rest of the world.

The ongoing mystery, at least as of this writing, about where the jet went after it veered off course from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing March 8, and where it finally crashed – or landed, though that’s doubtful – is made all the more perplexing when one considers how hard it is today for anyone to make themselves hard to find.

Turn back the clock 50 years. Let’s say you woke up one day in 1964, and you were bitterly dissatisfied with your life and wanted to start over somewhere.

With a little effort, you could pull it off.

And some did, whether they were disaffected husbands and wives, recruits to a cult or folks trying to stay one step ahead of the sheriff’s posse. Trying to track individuals down across the vast expanse of America could be extraordinarily difficult and probably required the services of some fedora-sporting gumshoe like you would find in a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett novel.

In the 21st century, however, trying to stay out of sight requires a degree of difficulty usually associated with an Olympic diving competition.

First, you’d have to leave your credit cards behind. Then throw your smartphone in a river. And avoid any ATM machines and ditch that card, too. Really, it would probably be necessary to empty your wallet of everything except for cash. That would include insurance and library cards, gift cards, even Giant Eagle cards, so you’d better cash in those fuel perks before you go.

Have a toll-booth transponder like E-Z Pass? Well, you’d have to rip that out of your car before you take off. And GPS, too. In fact, a bike might be a better option than traveling in any vehicle of recent vintage. They’ve been described as “rolling computers,” and before, too long, cars will have black boxes that will be able to record a car’s speed and other details in the event of an accident, not unlike the black box recorder that the agencies searching for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 are racing against time to recover.

Oh, and while you’re trying to forge a new existence, you’d better cut yourself loose from all forms of social media. No longer can you post on Facebook what you’re having for lunch. Avoiding the Internet in general would be a good bet.

Let’s not forget the National Security Agency, which sees us when we’re sleeping and knows when we’re awake. And satellite technology. And drones.

Even with all this, there’s still probably something we left out.

The gadgets and the gewgaws that fill our lives today have made everyday pursuits easier and more convenient – no longer do you need to spread a map on the passenger seat or manhandle it when you get lost. You can just punch in some coordinates and be on your way. But with all these devices comes a loss of privacy and anonymity that would have been unimaginable not all that long ago. We’re always in touch and we can always be found. That has been a point of contention for civil libertarians, and our laws are still trying to grapple with the blurring lines between the public and the private.

This is, indeed, a brave new world, but it needn’t be “1984.”



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