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(HOST) Can a gated community guarantee your privacy? Commentator Allen Gilbert thinks there are other ways that your privacy can be compromised.

(GILBERT) Don’t know if you caught it, but recently there was a story about a gated community — within a gated community. Some people will go to great lengths to protect their privacy.

About the same time, there was a series of stories in the business press about the use of electronic data. The series examined how information about us is gathered, stored, and shared — often without our realizing that it’s happening.

I found the juxtaposition of the two stories interesting. We’re willing to build walls around our neighborhoods to protect our privacy — even, apparently, walls around walls — yet we don’t have a clue how information about us is being collected and used.

Three elements have fallen into place to make information-sharing a major threat to personal privacy. The first is computers. Computers allow information to be stored electronically. Electronic information is more portable than information stored on a piece of paper and placed in a folder in a file cabinet.

The second element is transmission of electronic information. With easy transmission, a record can be sent anywhere in the world. This is where the Internet comes in. It makes a computerized record as portable as the click of a mouse.

The third critical element is data storage. And here there have been huge advances in recent years. My first computer came with two floppy disk drives, each holding two hundred and fifty-six kilobytes of memory. I was ecstatic when I got a hard drive — ten megabytes of memory! But today’s PCs come with gigabytes and gigabytes of memory, and they cost a fifth of what my first computer cost. You can imagine the storage capacity of today’s large mainframe computers.

Because of these increases in computer memory, storing electronic records has become so cheap that there’s no reason to delete a record — ever. A company or the government might as well hold on to the record. Someday, somewhere, someone may want the information. The situation is like having an attic that’s as big as you can ever want it to be — and you never have to throw anything out.

A critical fourth element is still missing, however, in the effort to build systems that can use records to create electronic profiles of all of us. That fourth element is a fast, efficient way to sort through the mountains of information that are accumulating. Think of boxes and boxes of records in a huge attic, and how hard it would be to find exactly what you want. If you didn’t have a good indexing system — one that can expand as new boxes are added,it would be hard to find what you’re after. The material is there. You just can’t find it.

A fast, effective, continuously updating index system is the missing fourth element in electronic record-keeping. The absence of such a system is the one thing left that’s helping to protect our personal privacy. When someone builds that system, however, it won’t matter if we’ve got double, triple, or even quadruple gates around our communities. We’ll have few secrets.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant; currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.

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