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“The Naked Crowd” By Jeffrey Rosen (Random House, 272 pages, $13.95) “The Open Society Paradox” By Dennis Bailey (Potomac Books, 229 pages, $29.95) “No Place to Hide” By Robert O’Harrow Jr. (The Free Press, 368 pages, $26) In 1998, Conde Nast mailed a survey to its magazine subscribers asking for the most intimate details of their lives. Many readers were more than happy to oblige, filling in information about where they shop, when they might marry, and what was wrong with their health, all of which proved quite helpful to the publisher’s marketing partners. Those eager responses raise the most perplexing question in the debate over privacy today: Why are we so willing to hand over so much personal information about ourselves, or subject ourselves to intrusive surveillance technology? Shedding light on that question from vastly different perspectives, are recent books by three D.C.-area writers: technology consultant Dennis Bailey, Washington Post reporter Robert O’Harrow Jr. and George Washington University professor Jeffrey Rosen. OPENNESS VS. PRIVACY Rosen, whose book, “The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age,” has just come out in paperback, argues that it’s more than a fear of terrorism that explains our willingness to put up with the most intrusive technologies. In an increasingly anonymous society, he contends, the best way to establish trust and intimacy among strangers is by revealing everything. Thus, everyone is willing to subject themselves to the “pitiless and unblinking gaze” of the “naked crowd.” That frustrates Rosen, who would prefer for us to embrace middle-ground technologies that can protect us against terrorism while also protecting our privacy. That’s much less of a concern to Bailey. In “The Open Society Paradox: Why the 21st Century Calls for More Openness — Not Less,” he downplays the value of privacy and exhibits an almost gee-whiz-like enthusiasm for new technologies. His book reads more like the blueprint for a marketing campaign designed to rebrand intrusive technologies in positive terms. Who could possibly oppose such values as openness and transparency or be against the fostering of accountability and trust? Bailey writes that technology can help us do both. THE 9/11 QUESTION Bailey seems almost frustrated that 9/11 didn’t fundamentally alter our willingness to accept invasive technologies. An increased degree of acceptance sure appeared to be the case immediately after the attacks. Public opinion polls suggested Americans would be willing to carry around national identification cards. Airports and cities like Virginia Beach scrambled to deploy face-recognition cameras. But as Rosen acknowledges, “our worst fears did not come to pass.” By 2002, the percentage of Americans who told pollsters they’d sacrifice civil liberties to fight terrorism fell below half, and support for national ID cards — a cause embraced by Bailey — dried up just as quickly. That’s not to say a groundswell of popular outrage is rallying around privacy, a cause adopted mainly by an unlikely coalition of liberals and libertarians fused by a mutual distrust of excessive government power. It’s not a good sign when a political movement’s loudest voices turn out to be America’s librarians, though that might change when Congress debates provisions of the USA Patriot Act that sunset later this year. Many of the new surveillance technologies haven’t quite lived up to their promise, a point Bailey, who earns his living as an information technology manager, prefers to brush aside. Rosen says that ineffectivness doesn’t seem to matter to most Americans, eager for technologies that make us feel safer regardless of whether they actually make us safer. STEALTHY ‘DATAVEILLANCE’ The exception is what Rosen calls “dataveillance,” the mining of databases by both private companies and government. The most effective form of surveillance is also the least understood by the public. Most readers of O’Harrow’s “No Place to Hide” will be shocked by the extent to which we have lost control over our information to firms that largely operate with little public scrutiny. You certainly would not realize the impact of companies such as Seisint or Acxiom by browsing their platitude-filled Web sites. Axciom, for example, says it is in the business to “enable many of the largest, most respected companies in the world to build great relationships with their customers.” O’Harrow sheds light onto what these companies do with the storehouses of personal dossiers they measure in petabytes — each equivalent to a 50,000-mile-high stack of King James Bibles. Another big player is a name all too familiar to every law firm associate: LexisNexis and its parent company, Reed Elsevier. All these businesses, O’Harrow writes, buy and sell our personal data like commodities such as soybeans or sow bellies. TRUST NO ONE? These companies transformed themselves into homeland security firms after 9/11, opening their databases to government agents who were astounded by what they found inside. What’s scary is how easy it is for mischief-makers to gain unauthorized access to these databases or for mere mistakes to push people off voter rolls, ruin their credit, or add them to aviation watchlists. Just ask Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who found it so difficult to get taken off one Transportation Security Administration list. Of the three books, O’Harrow’s is the most enjoyable read, filled with dramatic narratives of everyone from the authors of the Patriot Act to victims of identity theft. His book shows the striking difference between actual reporting and recycling the reporting of others, as Bailey too often has done. After reading a few chapters, even the most eager digital exhibitionist might think twice about trusting anyone with the kind of information revealed in Conde Nast’s survey. Seth Stern is a reporter for Congressional Quarterly.

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