January 23, 2013
Privacy is important. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Privacy is important. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Today in The Post appears a column from Jill and Scott Kelley complaining about the violation of their privacy during the David Petraeus scandal all those months ago. Tell your FBI friend about one string of threatening e-mails that turn out to come from Paula Broadwell, and suddenly your name is splashed all over the news. Even after Gen. Allen’s e-mails have been cleared of any charge of unbecoming conduct, the taint lingers. (Jill Kelley also offered an exclusive interview to Howard Kurtz at the Daily Beast.)

She has had to tangle with some ugly publicity in the past months, and I have immense sympathy for anyone whose child’s birthday party was disrupted by paparazzi on the lawn — and not the Good Kind.

Still, I am always a little tiny bit chary when people make a lot of noise in order to beg you not to pay attention to them. Nothing says “Stop paying attention to my family” like “Here are some previously unreleased pictures of my family.”

But I do understand the impulse to turn a megaphone on the people who have been staked outside your house, to yell, “GO AWAY! AND FURTHERMORE, WE ARE NOT LIKE THAT AT ALL!” But after two months, many of the people lurking outside your house had, well, gone away. And shouting “GO AWAY!” too loudly starts to sound like “COME BACK!”

Privacy is one thing. Reputation is another, and what Kelley is now trying to salvage may be closer to the latter than the former. And reputation is something you only have in public.

I have some other quibbles. In response to the e-mails, the Kelleys note, “we did what Americans are taught to do in dangerous situations: sought the help of law enforcement. Unfortunately, reaching out to an FBI agent whose acquaintance we had made resulted in slanderous allegations.” I am not sure these are exactly the same. Most of us cannot just reach out to an FBI agent whose acquaintance we have made, nor can most of us, as Howard Kurtz noted at the Daily Beast, invoke our honorary title of “special consul” to the South Korean foreign ministry in speaking to 911 dispatchers (“I am an honorary consul general,” he quotes from the call, “so I have inviolability. They should not be able to cross my property. I don’t know if you want to get diplomatic protection involved as well?”).

But it is hard not to sympathize. “Our family committed no crime and sought no publicity. We simply appealed for help after receiving anonymous e-mails with threats of blackmail and extortion,” the Kelleys write. Who wants her e-mails combed through and her name released like this? Even celebrities come begging for our mercy at such moments.

Some, less sympathetic, note that Jill Kelley has a new publicist now, in tandem with whom she seems to have decided that silence is not the best way to guarantee privacy. Maybe she is right. Maybe this is a clever reverse psychology trick. If you appear to be seeking publicity, suddenly giving it to you loses its appeal. Most people seeking to avoid publicity do not have publicists. Besides, if you are silent when people are talking about you, they are unlikely to use the good pictures.

There is a difference between privacy and obscurity. No one wants obscurity. This is why we complain to Wikipedia about their unfair treatment of us. “But there’s no article on you at all,” Wikipedia says. “Precisely!” we bellow. Obscurity is easy enough to cultivate. People do not care to see pictures of us or our trip to Guam, no matter how vigorously we share them. We are not seen, even when we want to be. They stay off our lawn because of their total and wondrous indifference to our lives. But we want both: we want people to know who we are and care about us and the wonderful things we do and exciting contributions we make to charities, but not trample through our lawns and ruin our parties. That is what we mean by privacy: the ability to be seen only when we want to be seen, at the angles that flatter. That is why privacy is much rarer than obscurity.

I wish her and her family many years of delightful privacy. But it’s difficult to find once you’ve been forced to ask for it in public.

The Kelleys are raising their voices at least partially in support of a sensible amendment to laws on e-mail privacy. They’re right.

The most ridiculous thing underlying this whole saga is the bizarre regulations governing e-mail privacy. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has been striving for some time to amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act he authored in 1986 — which, in Internet terms, is the pre-Cambrian era. Under current law, after 180 days, law enforcement no longer needs a warrant to gain access to your e-mail. This is completely insane.

180 days? After 180 days, I may not even have replied to your e-mail, let alone fortified myself mentally for sharing its contents with law enforcement.

Amendments Leahy proposed earlier would have required law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant from a judge and give a copy of the warrant to the people whose e-mails they are poring over, no matter how many days had passed — with exceptions in time-sensitive cases such as kidnappings. This would have been a good start. Now the fight continues. It is an important one. Our only protection should not be the fact that no one is looking. As the Kelleys saw, it’s not enough.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.