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Privacy Laws Should Be Viewed With Healthy Dose of Skepticism

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain

The problem with privacy laws is that people have a hard time agreeing on what should be kept private. It depends, all too often, on what ax you have to grind.

Gun advocates live in fear that their guns could be confiscated by an over-reaching federal government, so they devote their efforts to putting up impediments to tracking down owners, such as the creation of a federal registry of gun transactions. Other equally fervent champions of individual rights work just as hard to shield the identities of the mentally ill, lest stigma against such disorders hurt those afflicted in the pursuit of a normal life.

The concerns of both gun advocates and civil libertarians make preventing mass shootings such as the Newtown, Conn., massacre a formidable task. Both sides believe that their concerns should be paramount, and each side has very little tolerance for arguments opposing its own.

The advertising industry is right in the middle of these privacy issues and has adopted a nuanced view of online privacy. It is working to address the concerns of privacy advocates through the Digital Advertising Alliance while acknowledging that there's a consumer benefit to using data, namely creating a more compelling online experience with relevant ads and content.

It also helps to have a healthy dose of skepticism in trying to evaluate the various agendas of privacy advocates.

In short, this issue is a lot more complicated than it's being portrayed.

If we are serious about coming to grips with the root causes of these all-too-frequent mass murders, we've got to take into consideration privacy concerns on all sides, as the ad industry's little corner of the world has done.

It's easy to dismiss gun owners who take real or imagined inroads on the Second Amendment very seriously. But shouldn't we also question why people with serious mental illness aren't identified and treated?

Paul Steinberg, a psychiatrist in private practice, wrote in The New York Times that "we have too much concern about privacy, labeling and stereotyping, about the civil liberties of people who have horrifically distorted thinking. In our concerns for the rights of people with mental illness, we have come to neglect the rights of ordinary Americans to be safe from the fear of being shot -- at home and at school, in movie theaters, houses of worship and shopping malls."

Dr. Steinberg said that after mass murders "our airwaves are filled with unfounded speculation about video games, our culture of hedonism, and our loss of religious faith, while psychiatrists, the ones who know the most about severe mental illness, are largely marginalized...

"Too many people with acute schizophrenia have gone untreated. There have been too many Glocks, too many kids and adults cut down in their prime. Enough already."

It's not at all unusual to hear about deranged people engaging in random acts of violence, yet their behavior doesn't generate the outrage of mass killings. A few weeks ago in Orlando, for instance, a man used a butcher knife to stab and kill his victim -- as he had done to another man 12 years earlier. The longtime mental patient was released from prison after serving half his sentence (he received credit for schizophrenia treatment while awaiting trial). After he was released he failed to report to his parole officer, and Florida law doesn't require mentally ill inmates to seek treatment when they leave prison.

It's also important to consider the source in trying to evaluate the various agendas of privacy advocates. Take, for example, a segment I saw on the local news the other night. The science reporter presented a medical study that showed how many weeks, months or years are taken off your life if you consume certain food or drinks. The reporter didn't say who funded the study, but it wouldn't have been much of a story if he said the part about adverse effects of coffee was sponsored by the Tea Council.

The stakeholders are there, even if they aren't always easy to identify. It's pretty obvious who might be fanning the flames to protect the rights of gun owners. But there are also plenty of forces who benefit from protecting the privacy of the mentally ill, if only to minimize the problem. Hospitals, insurance companies and cash-strapped municipalities all have good reasons to play down the severity of disease and the need for extended treatment.

The same goes for the advertising business. Vernon Irvin, who is CEO of a company that produces anti-tracking software, told the Financial Times that beyond security, what most consumers want is privacy. "The maxim of "nothing to hide, nothing to fear' should not apply. It doesn't mean I'm doing anything I don't want people to see. But, you know, I don't want people to know I have toenail fungus -- and then toenail fungus ads to turn up everywhere."

Now, why wouldn't a guy who makes his living on anti-tracking software say consumers don't want to be tracked? And furthermore, what's so bad about getting ads for toenail-fungus remedies when you've got toenail fungus?

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