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Irrelevancy of the online privacy debate

When it comes to real life, CNET's Mike Yamamoto is willing to make relatively small concessions of civil liberty, especially considering the worst-case alternatives.

Eight years ago, on my first trip to London, I had a rather rude awakening when a large, uniformed officer pulled me out of a British Airways ticket line to frisk me.

Readers sound off on column It happened so fast that I didn't have time to protest his polite but purposeful search of my person. At first, my American sense of civil rights got the better of me: How dare he single me out as a potential terrorist or criminal, I thought.

Then I realized why few fellow passengers seemed to notice and why no apology was deemed necessary. This was business as usual at Heathrow Airport, origin of the 1988 Pan Am flight that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, and itself the site of repeated terrorist bombings.

In the years since, I have come to accept and appreciate security measures like the one that singled me out in London, a city that for decades has been the target of attacks by groups ranging from Middle Eastern extremists to the Irish Republican Army. These are relatively small concessions of civil liberty, considering the worst-case alternatives.

This is why I believe that much of today's debate over online privacy is largely irrelevant to real life. If certain tracking technologies can help federal law enforcement get a step ahead of potential terror groups, I would gladly relinquish some privacy protections that might be compromised in the process.

Absolute security of our private information has always been a myth. Many of the Orwellian fears expressed in the last week and a half are reminiscent of Big Brother warnings voiced in the early days of the mainstream Internet, when people vowed never to shop online because they didn't think their credit card numbers could be kept private.

No one, of course, wants to give the government or anyone else carte blanche to examine every facet of our personal information or behavior. But we already accept some measure of online disclosure as a price for daily conveniences, such as making phone calls, shopping with credit cards and using the Internet. So too must a price be paid for effective law enforcement through technology.

In many ways, online privacy is an ivory-tower concern of a society with the luxury to consider such topics as pressing priorities. Until last week's attacks, we Americans have debated things like digital privacy in the academic vacuum of a country that hasn't seen war on domestic soil in more than a century.

That cannot be said of most other parts of the world, where the specter of terrorism is part of everyday life. Until a cease-fire was declared in 1997, for example, IRA bombings had struck various parts of England regularly for 25 years. Now, Americans can no longer behave as though we are immune from such guerrilla warfare within our own borders.

The issue of online privacy has been largely confined to the realm of Washington policy, a subject of philosophical and political beliefs rather than one rooted in life and death. When such issues are taken outside the Beltway and into the Heartland, theoretical arguments about the Fourth Amendment can quickly be overshadowed by more immediate concerns, such as the safety of schools our children attend.

The depth of support for law enforcement among the body politic is often underestimated. Like it or not, many Americans have long wanted much more done to combat everyday crime in our society, let alone greater measures to protect against something as horrific as a terrorist attack.

To wit: When newspaper legend Mike Royko wrote some memorable columns about Singapore's infamous caning of U.S. teenager Michael Fay over public vandalism in 1994, Chicago Tribune readers were overwhelmingly supportive of the punishment.

"At least 99 percent of them said that, yes, hooray, he should be flogged," Royko wrote. "So what does this response tell us? That Americans are cruel, bloodthirsty and hate young people? No, it tells us that many Americans are fed up by what has happened to them, or to others, or what they see in their newspapers or on TV. It tells us that the justice system in this country is out of step with the feelings of the majority. Besides three strikes, they'd like to see six swats."

In one of the first news stories I wrote for CNET, about international jurisdictions on the Internet, a State Department source noted that the societal trade-offs Americans are willing to make for personal freedoms are unfathomable in Singapore and many other countries often portrayed as draconian or even fascist in the U.S. media.

Regardless of how we may feel about that nation-state's heavy-handed ways, this official said, "You do not see in Singapore any of the social ills in the United States and other Western countries. Unemployment is well under 3 percent, violent street crime for all practical purposes does not exist, the divorce rate is 1 percent or 2 percent, drug abuse is nonexistent."

It must be noted, however, that this is the same country regularly cited by human rights organizations for banning free speech and having one of the highest execution rates in the world (mostly for drug trafficking).

Still, there must be a reasonable compromise that maintains our constitutional freedoms without shackling law enforcement in the name of politics. We need to be realistic in weighing the lesser and greater degrees of evil in balancing our rights to privacy and the need to protect the public.

As one reader wrote to last week: "If giving up my right to not have my e-mail read could have saved this tragedy from happening, then I say, 'World, read my mail.'"

I couldn't agree more.