Borking Privacy

Peter Maass for The New Yorker, introducing a piece on privacy in light of the David Petraus affair:

In 1987, when Judge Robert Bork was enmeshed in a partisan struggle over his Supreme Court nomination, a reporter for an alternative weekly in Washington, D.C., got a tip that the judge was a patron of a local video store. Michael Dolan went to Potomac Video, in the western corner of the capital, and asked the assistant manager for a list of videos the judge had checked out. ’Cool,” the assistant manager said. ’I’ll look.” […]

After a bitter fight, the Senate rejected Bork’s nomination. One thing everyone agreed on, however, was that Bork’s privacy had been invaded. In 1988, Congress passed the Video Privacy Protection Act, making it illegal to release video lists without the customer’s consent to anyone but law enforcement, and then only with an appropriate warrant.

I had no idea that congressional outrage (and fear) over this incident led to the Video Privacy Protection Act, a law whose only relevance today is that it keeps Netflix from auto-populating your Facebook account with films you watch even though it does so for music you listen to.

Soon enough, though, the law will crumble, along with our right to opt-in privacy.

Anytime any one besides you is allowed to share information about you, your right to privacy has been abridged. It could be a video store clerk or Facebook. It is unnerving that Congress has tried to legislate privacy protections. They always appear to be two steps behind.