Assaulting Our Privacy: Nowhere to Hide

Using computers, high-tech gadgets and mountains of data, an army of snoops is assaulting our privacy.

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Because computer information is stored on small disks, it tends to be more enduring than paper records of old, which had to be discarded from time to time to make room for new files. As a result, long-ago personal setbacks can now embed themselves in the permanent record. Two influential trade groups, the American Business Conference and the National Alliance of Business, have even joined with the Educational Testing Service, which conducts the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, in creating a pilot program for a nationwide data base of high school records. It would give employers access to a job applicant's grades, attendance history and the ancient evaluations of teachers. Just like Mother warned you -- a ninth-grade report card could follow you for life.

Privacy watchdogs are warning that the combination of invasive technologies and lax laws threatens to make the U.S. a nation of people who live in glass houses, their every move open to scrutiny by outsiders. "I see no reason why McDonald's needs to know my Social Security number or my previous job title," complains New York Law School professor E. Donald Shapiro, a privacy specialist. "The danger is not that direct-marketing companies will clog your mailbox or call you during dinner to hawk commemorative coins," says David Linowes, former chairman of the U.S. Privacy Protection Commission. "The danger is that employers, banks and government agencies will use data bases to make decisions about our lives without our knowing about it."

At the same time, privacy is not an absolute value. With U.S. banks being used as a conduit for drug money, for example, law-enforcement officials have pressed them to report any suspicious movement of cash. Though that may involve a conflict with traditional notions of banker-client confidentiality, many banks have been willing to comply. "The social value of helping to fight drugs outweighs, at least to some extent, the privacy issue," says Jack Kilhefner, senior vice president at Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco.

Business groups also argue that banning the sale of their customer data violates property rights. "The agenda of the privacy types is anti- technology, anti-free speech and anti-business," says Robert Posch Jr., vice president of legal affairs for Doubleday Book & Music Clubs and a leading defender of data collectors. "They're trying to play on the public's fear of computers and having their names on lists. But a computerized data base is only a file cabinet that's faster."

In the same sense, a car is just a buggy that goes faster -- and yet the automobile revolutionized society. Data collection is doing the same. A number of catalog retailers and financial companies now make use of a business version of Caller I.D., a service offered by some phone companies, that lets them see the name, phone number and credit history of customers who call them. Once a company possesses a caller's name and address, it can dig up even more by linking with hundreds of data banks that also have the name on file. A phone number alone is so valuable to telemarketers that some companies advertise free phone-information lines as bait to gather numbers.

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