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Big Brother is watching as never before

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Your right to privacy has been stripped away. You cannot walk into your bank or apply for a job or access your personal computer without undergoing the scrutiny of strangers. You cannot use a credit card to buy clothes to cover your body without baring your soul. Big Brother is watching as never before.

Encouraged by an act of Congress, Texas and California now demand thumbprints of applicants for drivers' licenses - treating all drivers as potential criminals.Using a phony excuse about airplane security, airlines now demand identification like those licenses to make sure passengers don't exchange tickets to beat company rate-cutting promotions.

In the much-applauded pursuit of deadbeat dads, the Feds now demand that all employers inform the government of every new hire, thereby building a database of who is working for whom that would be the envy of the KGB.

Although it makes it easier to zip through tolls at bridges and highways, electric eyes reading license plates help snoopers everywhere follow the movements of each dri-ver and passenger.

Hooked on easy borrowing, consumers turn to plastic for their purchases, making records and sending electronic signals to telemarketers who track them down at home.

Stimulated by this demographic zeroing-in, Internet predators monitor your browsing, detect your interests, measure your purchases and even observe your expressed ideas.

Nor are Big Brothers limited to government and commerce. Your friends and neighbors, the Nosy Parkers, secretly tape regular calls you make to them and listen in to cellular calls to third parties, enhancing the video surveillance of public streets by government and private driveways by security agencies.

Enough. Fear of crime and terrorism has caused us to let down our guard against excessive intrusion into the lives of the law-abiding. The ease of minor borrowing and the transformation of shopping into recreation has addicted us to credit cards. Taken together, the fear and the ease make a map of our lives available to cops, crazies and con men alike.

(Here comes the "to-be-sure" graph.) Crime is real; some court-ordered taps of Mafiosi and surveillance cameras of high-violence playgrounds are justifiable. So are random drug and alcohol tests of nuclear-response teams. The SEC should monitor insider stock trades, and no sensible passenger minds frisking for bombs at airports.

But doesn't this creeping confluence of government snooping, commercial tracking and cultural tolerance of eavesdropping threaten each individual American's personal freedom? And isn't it time to reverse that terrible trend toward national nakedness before it replaces privacy as an American value?

Here's how to snatch your identity back from the intruders:

1. Sign as little as possible.

2. Write your local legislator demanding that a Privacy Impact Statement be required before passage of any new law.

3. Use snail mail, which is harder to intercept than e-mail.

4. Persuade a foundation to issue a quarterly "Intrusion Index," measuring with scholarly authority the degree to which your privacy is being violated.

5. Above all - pay cash. It costs less than borrowing and keeps you in control of your own records.

New York Times News Service