Privacy in the Information Age

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(HOST) How much privacy do we have in our lives? The existence of powerful computer databases suggests “Not much,” according to commentator Allen Gilbert.

(GILBERT) Recently I ordered some computer equipment online. It was late at night. I had trolled the Net and found some bargains. I was getting that warm glow of a solitary traveler in cyber space. The transaction would be completed from the anonymity of my dirt-road home in rural Vermont.

I put the items in my virtual shopping cart and proceeded to the “check-out” counter. Payment was by credit card. I entered my credit card number, expiration date and three-digit security code. That went fine. But then a screen popped up. To confirm your identity, it said, please verify previous addresses where you have lived. And there on my screen were addresses of places I’d lived 30 years ago. I had to look twice because I had almost forgotten some of the addresses myself.

All this was done in an instant. No human was involved. My life of the last 30 years flashed in front of me. It was as though a laser beam of light had cut through the wall of privacy that I thought protected me.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. The information came from publicly available documents, or documents that I had filed to get a credit card, register a product, apply for a mortgage, take out a car loan or complete a customer satisfaction survey. Before computers, all this information went into a black hole. It was kept isolated in a file cabinet somewhere. But computers and the Web have made the data readily available, anywhere in the world, in seconds. Electronic databases can aggregate all the little bits of information that different companies and institutions have about us. In other words, they can pull all the files together to build a complete picture of any of us.

Here’s what data research companies such as ChoicePoint know about us: Name. Address. Phone number. E-mail address. Social Security number. Credit history. Debts. Driving record. Criminal record. Marriages and divorces. Income. Value of residence. Net worth. Education level. Children. Voting frequency. Military service. Involvement in civil litigation.

What can we do to avoid what seems like spying? Not much. Public records are public records, available to anyone. And commercial information is usually gathered on an opt-out basis. You have to figure out how to take the initiative to ensure that your information isn’t passed on or sold to others. Protecting your privacy is nearly impossible, unless you think like a fugitive and pay in cash.

The spying is only one side of the equation, of course. Personal data can be stolen and used to impersonate you; identity theft, in other words. And the government can itself become a customer of a company like ChoicePoint. Add government records accessed administratively or obtained via searches or subpoenas to commercially available information and you’ve got a powerful tool. If some of the information is inaccurate or incomplete, you can be identified as a potential terrorist and put on a “no-fly” list.

George Orwell is rolling in his grave.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.

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