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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Open up in there. The census taker wants to know what time you leave for work. Giant marketing firms want to know how often you use your credit cards. Your boss would like your psychological profile, your bill-paying history and a urine sample. Is that enough to make you feel like hiding in a corner, muttering to yourself about invasions of privacy? Forget it -- the neighbors might be videotaping.

Though the word privacy does not appear in the Constitution, most people would probably agree with the great Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who once identified "the right to be let alone" as the prerequisite of a tolerable life. But the fundamental instinct to shield one's personal affairs from the eyes of outsiders is always under pressure from the no less venerable human urge to pry -- and the snoops just may be getting the upper hand these days. Items:

-- In June executives of the Procter & Gamble Co. in Cincinnati complained to police that company information was being illegally leaked to a reporter. To identify the source of the leak, Cincinnati Bell, acting in response to a grand jury subpoena, searched the phone records of every one of its 655,000 customers in the 513 and 606 area codes. P&G executives later conceded that the investigation was an error in judgment.

-- Public uproar forced Lotus Development, a software manufacturer, and Equifax, a company that compiles financial information about individuals, to shelve their scheme to market a data base that would have allowed anyone with a personal computer to purchase a list of names, buying habits and income levels of selected households. The system would have permitted small businesses such as dry cleaners, pharmacies and pizza take-out restaurants to get a bead on their local customers.

-- The Employers' Information Service, a company based in Gretna, La., is creating a massive data bank on workers who have reported on-the-job injuries. For a fee, employers can request a report on prospective employees, including a history of prior job injuries and a record of worker's compensation claims and lawsuits. To keep from being added to other data banks, workers in Idaho are suing that state's industrial commission to prevent it from releasing such records.

It may be customary to think of threats to privacy in Orwellian terms, with an all-seeing Big Brother government as the culprit. But lately the threat comes no less from private companies, private citizens -- and from our own imperfect notions of how to define which matters are properly kept confidential. The powers of government are fashioned under the pressure of society's own values and expectations. Lately those values have been in flux.

From the quiet frontiersman to the modern urban loner, the archetypal American is someone whose most sacred territory is the portable enclosure of the self. But if "Mind your own business" has long been a prime tenet of the national philosophy, "Let it all hang out" is now running a close second. It's hard to find a national consensus on confidentiality in a nation of tell- all memoirs, inquiring pollsters and talk shows -- not to mention televised Senate hearings -- whose participants air explicit sexual details that would have caused earlier generations to blush and turn away.

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