Too much privacy

Too much privacy
: Society’s protection of privacy has gone too far; it has turned into privacy paranoia and it has now cost lives.

The nurse who admits killing 30 to 40 patients, Charles Cullen, could not be stopped because each hospital that hired him — each hospital that unwittingly hired this killer, even after reference and background checks — could not find out the problems and suspicions about him at earlier hospital jobs. The New York Times reports that nothing short of a conviction or revocation of license can be passed on. This man was being investigated for suspicious deaths, and that could not be shared.

The system allowed a killer to kill. If the system were different, if this information about this man could have been shared, it would have saved — how many? — 10, 20, 30, 40 lives.

The Star-Ledger also says he had a history of mental illness, suicide attempts, and treatment at a mental institution.

The system allowed a madman to hold my neighbors’ lives in his hands.

Separately this morning, I heard a report on NPR (not yet online) complaining about a data base and Justice Department policy that now allows the names of illegal immigrants set for deportation to be entered into a national police data base. Many have been found this way; many of them felons. Opponents object that local police should not know this because of both privacy issues and because local police are not supposed to enforce federal immigration laws.

But if this had been in place before September 11, 2001, it would have popped out the illegal immigration status of some of the men who hijacked those jets; it would have messed up their plans; imagine if it had stopped them. It would have saved thousands of lives.

Of course, these are complex issues involving labor law, immigration, due process; it’s about more than privacy. But privacy has a great deal to do with this.

Privacy has become a sacred cow in the U.S. and in the E.U. as well. Throwing up the word “privacy” is enough to mobile armies of activists, professors, lawyers, and legislators.

We have George Orwell to thank for much of this, our fear not of Big Brother but of the Big Data Base. It’s mass paranoia.

It is also a way to hide from responsibility.

If a nurse is under investigation — rightly or wrongly — in suspicious deaths, his right to privacy is surely trumped by his employers’ right, need, and duty to know. If an immigrant is still here illegally and is fleeing from the law, isn’t it only sensible for law enforcement to know this?

I’ll say something very contrarian: When JetBlue gave data to a company to analyze to try to find patterns that would lead to terrorists, I did not object. I’m not sure the plan made an iota of sense but if there was any chance that such analysis could lead to helping stop the next 9/11, if that’s all it could be used for, then, hell, I’ll help; let me tell you about myself!

Priorities, people. Privacy is an important right in a civilized society but it is not an absolute.