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Posted at 08:00 PM ET, 11/13/2012

The real scandal of the Petraeus affair — the lie of privacy

The real scandal of the Petraeus blowup, so far, is not that it reveals dark things about the government’s handling of foreign affairs, or that it has flung anything particularly sordid into the public eye. No. The real scandal of the Petraeus blowup is what it does to the fragile notion of online privacy.

Sex scandals come and go. W. Somerset Maugham said, and I believe, that “there is hardly anyone whose sexual life, if it were broadcast, would not fill the world at large with surprise and horror.”

I would only add that the same is true of browser histories.

Online privacy is one of the cherished oxymorons of modern existence, like celebrity intellectual. But if you honestly think that no one can see what you’re doing, that all those hours and hours of archived Gchats and saved Gmail drafts are not hanging out in the open for anyone to glance at — well, Emperor, I have some new clothes to sell you.

We keep acting as though the battle for privacy is one we are still engaged in fighting. But it’s over. And we’ve lost. We’ve gained some nice things in return: the illusion of celebrity, instant communication, instant directions, instant everything we want the second we want it. None of those are anything to shake a stick at. But we’ve lost the ability to go unobserved. Just look at Google’s Transparency Report, which notes more than 7,000 requests for user data from the United States government alone, in the first half of 2012. Not all requests are complied with, but the number continues to grow, and Google is bound to obey lawful requests.

Maybe we don’t regret the loss. Privacy, as I’ve noted before, is just a politer way of saying you aren’t a celebrity yet. The idea that no one was paying attention, that no one was lurking near your house hanging on your every word —

It used to be comforting. Now it’s disappointing.

Most of us exist in a strange twilight land of not-quite-visibility.

Sure, we have our Facebook friends, our occasional Twitter followers. Most of us lack fame. But we’ve lost our obscurity too.

As someone whose default strategy for evading social awkwardness was to pretend to disappear off the face of the earth, I am at precisely the strange stratum of visibility where that is impossible. “Sorry I couldn’t make it to see ‘Argo’,” I text. “After an encounter with a rat, I just broke out in buboes and if I live, I’m becoming a hermit.”

Then I tweet about that very movie.

You can’t hide. Perhaps you can hide in plain sight, shielded by the vast bulk of everyone else’s indifference, but not always, and not for very long.

We’ve grown up with the naive assumption that we’re safe, if only because no one is looking. Because everyone’s doing it. Because so much is out there, such deluges of freely supplied information, that why would you even bother? And for the most part, we are right.

We hope.

But then every so often there’s a ripple. Someone makes the news, and we find the Twitter that was — well, public before, but never meant to be that public, gets combed through. Someone’s video or blog or tweet goes viral, and then everyone starts reading everything else.

Even trolls, even the people who post with masks on and act as though they know better, get outed, these days.

Facebook automatically shifts our privacy settings. We undo it after the fact. The FBI paws through e-mails. The desire for celebrity, for security, for convenience, for an external repository for our memories, for any of those truly desirable things, has gotten us to trade in the pale pottage of privacy.

Perhaps there’s a relief in being noticed. Attention, after all, must be paid. Sooner or later, There is a certain grim satisfaction in the thought that when we are found out, some poor FBI employee has to read through 20,000 pages of “flirtatious e-mails.” What you whispered in the private chamber will someday echo from the housetops.

The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, we agree.

But the only thing worse than not being noticed is being watched all the time.

The mushrooming Petraeus probe has been a mess. It’s been ugly, and it seems to go on and on. But if it gets us to see the extent of the trade-offs we’ve made, maybe we’ll win back something worth having from the muck.

By  |  08:00 PM ET, 11/13/2012

 
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