Privacy at the heart of NSA revelations

The cat’s out of the bag. The genie’s out of the bottle. The sweater I can’t afford is at Nordstrom. It’s a Kate Spade cardigan.

I mention this not because it matters, but because I might as well. It’s out there, the fact that I liked a $198 “sea glass” blue sweater enough to click on it while browsing the Internet.

The other night I was checking a few websites. I was on Facebook, where I most like to see pictures of my grandson. I glanced at a couple of newspaper sites. And, although I’m trying to break a clothes-buying habit, I looked at the Nordstrom site — where I saw this blue sweater.

So the next evening, there was the Nordstrom logo smack on my Facebook “Home” page, along with a picture of the exact sweater I looked at the night before.

The Nordstrom ad wasn’t on the side where Facebook stacks advertising. It was mixed in with pictures of pets and kids, links and observations and other updates posted by my friends and relatives.

Obviously we’re targeted by advertisers. I still get email from an Arizona hotel where I stayed years ago for a nephew’s wedding. With a wallet full of supermarket “advantage” and “rewards” cards, I have traded in my name and other information for grocery discounts. Amazon and Barnes &Noble know from my buying habits that I like literary fiction and biographies. I’m not a huge fan of spy novels, although I am currently riveted by a real-life spying saga.

The whole country is caught up this week in a big conversation about privacy — whether it’s the government keeping tabs on our phone calls or retailers using our Facebook pages to try to sell us stuff.

One may seem silly. The other is monumental. One reveals a consumer’s taste in clothing, the other may be stepping on our constitutional rights to privacy, free speech and association. Apples and oranges? Maybe, but it’s all unsettling.

The Guardian, a British news organization, was first to reveal a secret surveillance program by the National Security Agency that reportedly tracks Americans’ phone use. Edward J. Snowden, a former CIA worker employed by a government contractor until being fired this week, has identified himself as The Guardian’s source of leaks about the program.

A separate U.S. government program that taps into Internet usage, called PRISM, has also been unveiled by The Washington Post and The Guardian. The Internet spy program, according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, is authorized in the USA Patriot Act.

Always a magnet for strong opinions, the Patriot Act was first enacted in 2001 as a tool to keep us safe from terrorists. In 2011, it was reauthorized by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama, all without much fuss. It will be in effect at least through 2015.

After 9/11, the country seemed to come down on the side of increased government powers in the security vs. privacy tug of war. If we have to decide between private phone records and stopping another big terrorist attack, it’s hard to argue against giving up some information.

It’s something else again when we so easily give information away to businesses.

We do it for convenience. Everett no longer even has a full-service bookstore, so online shopping only makes sense. We do it just for fun, too. I have shared pictures on Facebook of the Idaho resort where I go on vacation — just because I can.

What surprised me about seeing that Nordstrom sweater on my Facebook page was how specifically targeted the sales-pitch was.

Co-workers who understand social media much better than I do say that advertisers don’t want to waste their efforts pitching my preferences to other people. So apparently, my Facebook friends didn’t see that blue sweater linked to me.

It made me think, though. What if I weren’t looking at sweaters online? What if I were searching the Internet for something quite sensitive?

Let’s say you searched for a mental health counselor, a bankruptcy or divorce attorney, an addiction specialist, or for information about HIV medications. Would ads related to those things ever show up on a Facebook Home page?

And is anyone else nervous about the future?

Our government has its secrets — more, it turns out, than we imagined. Yet it’s getting harder to keep our own secrets private.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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