Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Just weeks after the Supreme Court took a landmark case featuring a demand for greater communication privacy, many took to Facebook to reveal the color of the bra they were wearing. In a breast cancer awareness effort, women (mostly women, I assume) updated their profiles with words such as "black," "leopard" or (interestingly) "camouflage."

It is the paradox of the cyber era: A nation of exhibitionists demanding privacy.

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The upcoming Supreme Court case of City of Ontario v. Quon is an advertisement for the living, evolving Constitution. Chief Justice John Marshall probably could not have anticipated that a police officer would assert his Fourth Amendment protection against "unreasonable search" as permission to send sexually explicit text messages to his mistress on a pager provided by his department. The officer was not fired or disciplined, merely monitored and exposed by a superior. But a federal court sided with the offended officer, concluding he had a "reasonable expectation of privacy" in his text messages.

There are a number of narrow issues in this case. The city of Ontario, Calif., officially told employees they should have no expectation of privacy on government computers, phones and pagers. Informally, supervisors sent a more permissive message.

But if the Supreme Court chooses to rule broadly, the influence will be broadly felt. Who actually owns an e-mail, text message or Facebook update? The person who composes it? The owner of the instrument that stores or communicates it? When supervisors view messages posted from public or company property, are they reading the equivalent of a T-shirt or a diary? Is there really a constitutional right to "sext" your mistress from your employer's cell phone?

The most interesting aspect of cyber culture, however, is not the quest for privacy but its disregard -- not the desire to protect private communication but the compulsion to make bra colors public.

The Internet is known for its milestones of exhibitionism. In 1996, Jennifer Ringley began broadcasting her entire life -- from brushing her teeth to making love -- on the Internet. In 1998, Elizabeth Ann Oliver delivered her baby live on the Web. In 2001, Josh Harris presented the breakup with his girlfriend and his nervous breakdown for Internet consumption.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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