(8 of 8)
In response to a problem that lies closer to home, several lawmakers have proposed legislation to beef up the 1974 Privacy Act, the federal law that defends citizens from government misuse of data. Enforcement is haphazard, and loopholes permit agencies to stretch the law. Though the act would appear to forbid it, agencies exchange information on individual citizens in the name of detecting waste, fraud and abuse of benefits. They claim that such exchanges are legal on the ground that the disclosures are "compatible" with the purpose for which the data were collected. Under that loose standard, tax returns are compared with welfare rolls or lists of student-loan recipients. That might seem justifiable in a time of tight budgets, but the precedent it sets for going around the law could encourage more ominous practices, such as using the records of people in drug-treatment programs to search for possible criminals.
West Virginia Democrat Bob Wise, chairman of the House subcommittee on government information, has gone further. In November 1989 he introduced a proposal to create a federal data-protection board to ensure that personal information in government computers is not abused. Demanding more sweeping action, privacy advocates want Congress to regulate private companies' use of data by requiring consent for the use of information and strict controls over its accuracy. They also call for the creation of a privacy ombudsman, like those in Canada and Australia, who can aggressively defend consumer interests.
Gary T. Marx, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specializes in privacy issues, even wants Congress to establish a royalty system to compensate individuals -- or consumers en masse -- whenever personal information about them is sold. "If we are to treat personal information as a commodity," he wrote recently, "it seems only fair that those to whom it pertains ought to control it and share in financial gain from its sale."
If nothing else, that scheme would have the virtue of framing what can be a metaphysical problem in simple market terms: Just what price do we put on privacy? No one can answer that question who has not sorted out the issues of how much privacy we need and how much we are willing to give up in exchange for things like convenience shopping, job opportunities, law enforcement and higher productivity. For unlike the nightmarish Big Brother world of Orwell, the question of how much privacy Americans preserve will depend more on the values of the people than the whims and dictates of government.
CHART: NOT AVAILABLE
CREDIT: From a telephone poll of 500 American adults taken on Oct. 23 by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman. Sampling error is plus or minus 4.5%. "Not sures" omitted.
CAPTION: TIME/CNN POLL on PRIVACY