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As the bounds of privacy dissolve under the demands for frankness, they also bend before the pressures for AIDS testing, drug testing and now even genetic testing, which promises to predict each person's inherited susceptibility to certain illnesses but could also create a pariah class of people that employers would regard as too prone to cancer, heart disease or other ailments. Into this volatile mix of half-formed attitudes and sharply felt anxieties, technology has arrived with a host of unprecedented temptations. Many new answering machines are equipped to surreptitiously tape whole conversations. Video-surveillance cameras quietly scan many workplaces. Neighborhood retailers now stock hardware that used to be the stuff of spy novels. But by far the most important high-tech threat to privacy is not an exotic surveillance device but a familiar storage system: the computer. Computers permit nimble feats of data manipulation, including high-speed retrieval and matching of records, that were impossible with paper stored in file cabinets. They have turned data collection into a $1 billion-a-year industry -- one in which nearly every American supplies the data, often without knowing it.
To get a driver's license, a mortgage or a credit card, to be admitted to a hospital or to register the warranty on a new purchase, people routinely fill out forms providing a wealth of facts about themselves. Little of it remains confidential. Personal finances, medical history, purchasing habits and more are raked in by data companies. These firms combine the records with information drawn from other sources -- for instance, from state governments that sell lists of driver's licenses, or the post office lists of addresses arranged according to ZIP code -- to draw a clearer picture of an individual or a household.
The repackaged data -- which often include hearsay and inaccuracies -- are then sold to government agencies, mortgage lenders, retailers, small businesses, marketers and insurers. When making loan decisions, banks rely on credit-bureau reports about the applicant's bill-paying history. Employers often refer to them in making hiring decisions. Marketers use information about buying habits and income to target their mail-order and telephone pitches. Even government agencies are plugging in to commercial data bases to make decisions about eligibility for health-care benefits and Social Security.
"In the not too distant future, consumers face the prospect that a computer somewhere will compile records about every place they go and everything they purchase," says Democrat Bob Wise of West Virginia, who heads the House subcommittee that oversees the government's use of data. "I'm not sure this is the vision of the future that will make Americans comfortable."