Mapping a climate of fear

It has been nearly three months since California voters approved Proposition 8, a ballot measure banning gay marriage. (Kevork Djansezian/AP file photo)



There are all sorts of disturbing things in this world - such as Rod Blagojevich comparing his impeachment to Pearl Harbor, and doomed Wall Street titan John Thain spending $1.2 million to redecorate his Merrill Lynch office - but, for the moment, I'm particularly creeped out by a development in the never-ending California gay marriage imbroglio.

It has been nearly three months since 52 percent of the state's voters approved Proposition 8, the ballot measure banning gay marriage. Gay activists remain extremely ticked off, particularly because so many donors (and the Mormon church)came to the aid of the marriage banners. But instead of productively channeling their energies - by perhaps analyzing what went wrong; perhaps by tweaking the pro-marriage message so that it's more persuasive - some activists have apparently decided that it would be preferable to create a climate of fear.

Although, considering the technological tools currently available, maybe it should be called Fear 2.0.

After scouring the California campaign finance records, which list the names and addresses of everyone who donated to the anti-marriage campaign, the intrepid gay activists have enlisted the wondrous Google technology...and produced a series of handy online maps that make it possible for any ticked-off partisan to track down any anti-gay donor, and pound on that person's front door. Or do something worse.

Granted, the California records are public information, open to anyone who wants to track political donations. Donor disclosure has long been a priority nationwide, as a matter of public interest. But there is something inherently troubling about this particular incident, in which cutting-edge technology is being used to exploit the noble cause of transparency - and further imperil the right to privacy. Perhaps there should be some caveats to the old saw about how the truth shall make us free.

Granted, anyone who donates to a politician or referendum has to expect a little public scrutiny; a typical donor assumes at this point that his or her name, address, and contribution will be listed somewhere. But a typical donor does not expect - indeed, should not expect - to have his or her home address quickly pinpointed on Google Maps, for the potential benefit of any unhinged opposition individual who decides to cruise a target neighborhood with easy guidance from an iPhone.

Back in the old distant days - say, 20 years ago - newspapers reporters, such as yours truly - would pore endlessly over the campaign donation logs, which essentially recorded the public acts of private people. (I recall spending two entire days, in the spring of 1990, looking at the contributors to Bill Bradley's U.S. Senate re-election campaign in New Jersey.) We looked for newsworthy patterns, but we left most donors alone. In essence, we were the filter. Today, with cyberspace, there is no filter. And there is little privacy.

Privacy, as a concept, is already under sustained assault in our era. Thanks to the marriage of technology and transparency, we are perpetually vulnerable to hackers, identity thieves, web information brokers, and keystroke trackers, and we are routinely recorded on video when we leave our homes to venture into public places. It hardly seems fair to me to suggest that Americans who donate to campaigns and referenda - whatever the cause - should be willing to risk the privacy of their own homes in order to do so. Indeed, it wouldn't be surprising to learn, in some future political contest, that some would-be donors decided to forego any exposure in the public square, fearing retaliation on their doorstep.

Granted, again, there is as yet no evidence that the Google Maps of the Prop 8 donors have been used for illegal purposes. Nobody's house has been torched, or anything similar. But to those gay activists who see the maps as no big deal, I would suggest this simple test:

Reverse the players. Imagine how the gay community might feel if the "traditional marriage" forces cooked up a set of Google Maps that targeted the home addresses of pro-gay donors living in conservative communities. The gay community would surely denounce that as an open invitation to gay-bashers. As well they should.

Or take a totally different hypothetical. How would it look, in the aftermath (God forbid) of another terrorist attack on American soil, if anti-Muslim extremists were to craft Google Maps directing people to the home addresses of Muslim-Americans who had donated money to Muslim politicians and legitimate Muslim causes? It would all be perfectly legal.

But it's appropriate to suggest that a line of decency must be drawn somewhere.