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Sometimes history stares you in the face, and you look in the wrong direction.
As a young reporter in the late 1970s, I did stories about some of the first automatic teller machines as they came into use. Most of my stories bore in on the concerns that seemed most urgent back then: Will people trust getting money from a machine, not a person? What if you ask the machine for $50 and it spits out $20?
Today, those worries sound as antique as wondering if the Iron Horse would put a lot of blacksmiths out of business — which I guess the automobile did.
What I did not foresee — and I don't recall that any of the truly learned persons I consulted did, either — is that the instantaneous interconnectedness of the ATM would portend, before mobile phones and laptop computers, an age in which we scatter trails of personal information each day, even each hour.
Make a call, get some cash, check the news, buy a pair of socks, ride the subway: lights, cameras and microchips record it. You don't need to be a government security agency to discover what pills we have in our cabinet, the route we take to work, who we call, what we had for lunch, what we're buying to read, even if the book just sits on the kitchen table (or, increasingly, in digits), what size socks we wear and what color. And who our friends are.
If you post a note on a social media site to say you're rooting for the Blackhawks or Spurs, the next site you visit may have ads for their caps and T-shirts.
You might be startled to first notice that you're being tracked by retailers and who knows who else. But if we're going to live in the real world these days, that includes the World Wide Web. It's a crime to open someone's mail, but not to follow what they say and where they go on the Internet.
Has what we mean by privacy changed in the digital age? A study by the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center conducted in April — before stories broke about the National Security Agency collecting cellphone and Internet records — found that people between 18 and 34 are markedly less bothered by the idea that their every click leaves a trace.
"Online privacy is dead. Millennials understand that, while older users have not adapted," said Jeffrey Cole, director of the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future. "This demonstrates a major shift ... there's no going back."
But is that the way we'll want to live in the future — susceptible to suspicion because of what we read or who we know? As a noted expert on privacy, Greta Garbo once wrote, "I never said, 'I want to be alone.' I only said 'I want to be let alone!' There is all the difference."