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Is Anything Really Private Any More?

Americans' right to privacy has been an evolving concept. The U.S. Constitution's initial ten amendments that we call the Bill of Rights guaranteed only that the government could not quarter soldiers in people's residences and that homes could not be unreasonably searched. Much later, after many court cases, the notion of privacy expanded to include a certain expectation of solitude at home, free from outside prying.

But these days, you don't have to be a celebrity like pop singer Britney Spears to realize that the right to privacy is no longer assured. Technology enables others to snoop in our computers, bank accounts, and our very homes.

Take the case of a 17-year-old Virginia high-school student. One snowy day last month, he picked up his cellphone on his lunch break and called a school official at home to complain that classes had not been cancelled. He got an answering machine and left a cryptic message, to which the man's wife replied with a caustic message of her own on the student's phone. "How dare you call us at home!" she yelled. "You're a snotty-nosed little brat." And she advised him to get over it and go to school.

The student promptly posted the whole exchange on the Internet, for all the world to hear. In letters to newspapers, many people applauded the woman's outburst, saying a person should have a right to be left alone in one's home, even on the phone. For his part, the student told the Washington Post, "People in my generation view privacy differently. We are the cellphone generation. We are used to being reached at all times."

In an age when people share intimate details of their lives on the Web, reality television takes voyeuristic viewers into people's workplaces and even bedrooms, and people — like the young man from Virginia — feel free to call anyone anywhere, at any time, the whole question of what is really private is getting quite a test these days.