For many, privacy is a hot commodity

Solitude: Americans are willing to pay more for individual bedrooms and phone lines.

February 27, 2005|By Marilyn Geewax | Marilyn Geewax,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - Anyone can surreptitiously snap your picture with a cell phone. Police can watch you through surveillance cameras. Credit-card issuers can examine your financial history, and online booksellers can compile data on your reading habits.

Each day, it seems, our privacy erodes further as intrusive new technologies peer more deeply into our lives.

But while it may not seem so, we are in many ways living in a golden era of privacy - a time when affluent Americans are enjoying more personal privacy than their grandparents ever could have imagined. Today:

Buyers prefer houses big enough to give each child a separate bedroom - and a private bath.

Hospitals put patients into private rooms rather than open wards.

Phone companies, which used to offer party lines, instead promote wireless packages that allow each family member to have a private line.

Americans' willingness to pay for more privacy is transforming college campuses. Dormitories built in the 1960s and 1970s are being razed so that colleges can create single-occupant rooms with private baths. No more stacking up students in bunk beds, or expecting them to shower in communal bathrooms at the end of the hallway, near the floor's solitary pay phone.

"An increase in physical privacy comes with greater wealth," said Peter Swire, an Ohio State University law professor who served as a chief counselor for privacy in the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration. "In a four-bedroom house, there is a separate room for each kid. So in a modern dorm, each student often has his own sleeping space."

But an affluent society also can afford to be nosey. So while many students may be able to sleep in a private room, their every waking action may be monitored.

Thanks to college-issued "smart card" IDs, a record is created each time a student unlocks a campus door, pays for a cafeteria meal or checks a book out of the library. In the financial-aid office, workers examine details of the student's family finances.

As the young person walks across campus, security cameras track each move.

"The increase in surveillance is also a consequence of our wealth," Swire said. "A wealthy and digitized society keeps more records."

Swire said that while today's college students may think they are enjoying more privacy because they can shower alone, they may be losing a different kind of privacy that their baby-boomer parents enjoyed.

"The person with a birthmark doesn't get teased in the shower now," he said. "But video cameras can keep a permanent record of who is holding hands with whom" in the dorm lounge.

"This has the potential to chill our actions," he said. "Some people would like to forget some of the things they did in college" and be able to start life with a clean slate.

Users of new data-collecting technologies argue that they are not invading privacy so much as restoring the close relationship that used to exist between professors and students, merchants and consumers.

For example, in the 19th century, most Americans lived in small towns, where the one bookseller knew his customers and remembered their reading preferences. The dressmaker knew which ladies were pregnant. The tavern owner knew who drank too much. The college dean knew which of his students were staying out late at night. Inc. says that when it compiles consumer information, it is not acting as an invasive snoop, but rather as an old-fashioned merchant greeting a returning customer.

Whether most people agree with such arguments is open to debate. Many feel their privacy is being invaded by cameras and computers.

But there is no question Americans are engaged in a drive to boost their physical privacy. The trend now begins at the earliest stages in life when young children are given their own bedrooms.

This shift in living arrangements shows up in data compiled by the National Association of Home Builders, a trade group. It reports that in 1950, only 1 percent of homes were built with four bedrooms or more. Now, about four houses in 10 are built with four bedrooms or more.

Moreover, in 1950, just 1 percent of new homes had at least 2 1/2 baths. Today, nearly three houses in five are built with that many baths or more.

In other words, a typical American 10-year-old has more personal privacy than a king might have had in earlier times. France's fabulously wealthy Louis XIV had to have someone empty his chamber pot; today's child has his own private bathroom with a lock on the door.

When occupants of our new spacious homes get sick, they want privacy at the hospital, too. Rick Wade, spokesman for the American Hospital Association, said that early in the 20th century, hospitals often had open wards with dozens of patients.

Later, they offered four-patient wards. In the 1960s, hospitals moved toward "semi-private" rooms where two patients might be separated by a curtain.

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