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Column: Like somebody's watching me

There's been a whole lot of fuss lately about PRISM, which was introduced to the world last week as a government program to mine personal information from the phone calls and online activity of the American people.

People are furious. They don't like the idea that, without their knowledge, The Man is digging into information they believed was private.

It's understandable. People these days are serious about their privacy. They'll tell you as much on Facebook, or on Twitter. They'll post Instagram photos of themselves holding signs protesting government intrusion into their lives, or Vine videos with six-second diatribes against the The Man's violation of our sacred rights as Americans. They'll check in on Foursquare at anti-PRISM rallies and then write about it all on their blog.

People have a right to expect privacy obviously, but a country where people once worried about Big Brother looking over their shoulder has turned into a country where people who compete to be on a television show called Big Brother. Or The Bachelor. Or The Bachelorette. Or one of those shows where people pretend they're going to find lasting love with a washed up rock star.

You want privacy? Trust me, there are plenty of people I wish had a whole lot more privacy than they currently do.

Not everybody wants to live their lives in front of the camera. But scrolling through my Twitter feed reveals a remarkable amount of information about people I've never met. I can see their videos of raccoons, or get filled in on their plans for the night. The social network Foursquare, which lets people check in when they visit certain locations, once briefly spawned a website called Please Rob Me, which shared your check-ins with the world in case anybody wanted to know when your house was empty.

Back when people were flocking to Chatroulette, a website that matched random people with webcams, it was nearly impossible to visit without seeing someone's private parts. Which, come to think of it, might be why you don't hear so much about Chatroulette anymore.

Politicians have defended PRISM. According to a CNN report, the program has led to convictions in at least two terrorism-related cases. Government officials have also denied that they're listening in on all your phone calls or reading all of your emails. And you'd think if they were really watching that closely I'd have at least a couple of hits on my YouTube videos.

Even so, it all seems a little unnecessary. Don't our national law-enforcement officials know by now that all they need to do to catch a criminal is wait for them to brag about it online?

Seriously, a quick search for "criminals caught on Facebook" turns up plenty of links to lists with names like, "9 suspected criminals who got caught via social media" or "15 criminals who got caught by bragging about their crimes." They're full of stories about people like the woman who posted a video online in which she bragged about stealing a car and robbing a bank. She showed up on screen surrounded by the cash she'd stolen.

The police don't need to dig through our data. They just need to follow us on Twitter. We'll tell them everything they need to know, 140 characters at a time.

Not everybody overshares, of course. And people should have an expectation that their data are private, unless the government can provide a good reason they need to take a look.

Still, I'm relatively certain nobody in the government is reading all of my emails. And if they are, um, I can explain about the ostrich.

We have to draw a line somewhere, obviously. But there are times when it seems we need to explain that to people being watched as much as to the watchers.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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