You Are the ProductPersonal Info Flows Into Global Marketplace

There are things I don't want you to know about me. There are things I don't want my boss to know about me. There are things I don't want corporate America to know about me. I don't want you -- a total stranger -- to know my Social Security number, my address or phone number, whom I call, where I go or when I come home. I don't want my employer to know my credit rating, my medical history or whether I am at risk for certain diseases. I don't want corporate America to know what sites I visit on the Internet, what magazines I read or what brand of toothpaste I prefer. It's not that I have anything to hide, mind you. But why should it matter to you -- a total stranger -- my boss or corporate America? Since when did my life become an open book? Since when did I become just another byproduct of the Information Age? I mean, whose life is it anyway?You don't have the right to know any of those things. My boss doesn't have the right. My neighbors don't have the right. Corporate America doesn't have the right. Or do they?Where is it written that I have the right to a private life? What is the law that guarantees my right to keeping "personal" information confidential? I -- you, we -- have no fundamental rights to privacy. Nowhere in the U. S. Constitution is anything written about "privacy." The laws on privacy are few and far between -- and largely limited to what we do inside the comfort of our own homes. In "The Naked Consumer: How Our Private Lives Become Public Commodities," author Erik Larson sums up the issue: "Our so-called right to privacy is a melange of constitutional interpretations and too specific legislation that fails utterly to take into account the passage of America into Ôcyberspace,' the age of ephemera, where computers, fiber-optic superhighways, interactive cable television, smart-cards and invisible telecommunications networks promote the constant, liquid transfer of personal information across all boundaries in a heartbeat." "Brave New World"The concept of privacy rights in America has always been, at best, a flimsy idea. Individual states have different laws that may offer residents more protection, but at the federal level the guarantees are limited. In 1967, when the Supreme Court overturned a 1928 decision stating that tapping another person's phone did not violate Fourth Amendment rights, it acknowledged "zones of privacy" within which we can expect a degree of privacy. In 1974, Congress passed the Privacy Act -- but it only applied to federal agencies and their methods of storing and transferring personal information about individuals. Specifically, it gave you and me the right to sue a federal agency -- either in civil or criminal court -- if it willfully and intentionally violated the act. Information collected for one purpose could not be used for another without that individual's express consent. In 1979, the court ruled that our telephone records were not private. In 1986, this decision was nullified after Congress enacted the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. In 1988, the Supreme Court decided that our garbage -- once removed from the home -- was no longer protected within those privacy zones. In 1988, Congress passed the Video Privacy Act, which forbids video retailers from revealing what videos its customers rent. Legally, that's about it.Whether we like it, consent to it, or are even aware of it, our private lives are already subjected to mass investigation. You must turn over a bottle of urine for drug testing before you can begin a new job. Your children are fingerprinted by the local police so they can be tracked down if snatched. Your department store movements are captured on mall video cameras. Today, as you zoom down the highway, police radar guns note your speed and, at night, helicopter spotlights illuminate your yards and alleys. Your driver's license has a magnetic strip holding encoded data about you. The "savings" card you use at the grocery store tracks your every purchase -- your cravings and odd tastes. Across the country, there are thousands of databases containing information about you, your habits, hobbies and preferences. In today's Information Age, personal information is a commodity. The sum of you equals a priceless product: a consumer profile to which advertisers can directly market. The scary thing is most of us have agreed to this degree of "invasion." Much of that seemingly random information was willingly provided by me, you, us. "We already gave up our prvacy rights. I think we are speaking in the past tense," says Valerie Small Navarro, legislative analyst for the Sacramento chapter of the ACLU. "The question is, how do we regain any semblance of privacy?" Much of the increased scrutiny comes under the guise of greater personal security or consumer convenience. But the intrusions are broader than many people suspect. Intrusiveness dips into daily activities, bank records and credit card histories. It lets marketing organizations know everything from your salary to your favorite foods. And every time the courts sort out a facet of the debate, it seems that another technological innovation comes along that helps someone -- ex-spouses, bosses, competitors or prosecutors -- push the privacy envelope a little further. "The 1974 Privacy Act has not been updated," says Small Navarro. "It's almost ludicrous that we're living under something that old in this day and age." Some snooping is recreational: People sit beside shortwave scanners eavesdropping on police and cellular phone conversations. High-rise dwellers peer through binoculars into the apartments of neighbors. Some snooping is accidental: Walkie-talkie style baby monitors not only pick up the cries of fussy infants, but also broadcast the sounds in neighboring households with their own monitors. Either way, we watch, we listen, we take note; after all my privacy is important, but not necessarily yours. "Spies Like Us"Fox's Spy Outlet is unceremoniously sandwiched between a VCR repair shop and convenience store on Folsom Boulevard. From the outside it's bland, innocuous -- looks like a Radio Shack, maybe. Inside, however, is a treasure trove of nifty surveillance gadgets: pin-sized cameras to mount on walls, behind mirrors, inside plants. Telephone recording devices. Devices that can decode a telephone pulse so you can figure out a number that was dialed. Bug detection equipment. Detection powder that leaves an ultraviolet or colored stain to mark your property. There are books on surveillance as well as general texts on the art of spying -- "The Whole Spy Catalog", "How Big Brother Investigates You". Some of the products are purchased by people who think they're being stalked, or are going through a divorce or a lawsuit and want cold, hard evidence. Many businesses use the gadgets to catch or deter shoplifters or employees in the act of wrongdoing. "There's a big demand to fill that niche for personal or business security. Businesses use them to prove employee theft or shoplifting," says Ken Fox, owner of Fox's Spy Outlet. But surely some of this stuff is bought just for the sheer novelty of it all. You know, Joe Schmoe wanting to play James Bond. After all, most of us do possess an innate curiosity as to what the neighbors are up to. "I don't usually ask them what it's for, [but] a lot of times customers will come back and tell me what happened," says Fox. "I know they do use it for personal stuff. As long as they follow California law." "Private Parts"OK, so spying on your neighbor -- sticking the camera in his bedroom window, tapping her phone -- is clearly illegal. Other issues are much more murky. Specifically, our rights in the workplace are less clearly defined. Just how far can employers pry into the lives of employees? Courts have held that employers can't use video cameras to spy on workers in a company break room, for instance, but have also ruled that a worker's e-mail isn't necessarily private. That's right, you know all those funny and sarcastic e-mail messages about your boss that you've been trading with co-workers? Well, guess what -- he or she has the right to read them. And because they're part of the company intranet, they're pretty darn easy for your boss to retrieve. Likewise, any messages stored in your company's voicemail system are also fair game. Your employer also has the right to listen in on your business phone calls, although here in California, the law requires that when both parties are in the state, they be informed that the conversation is recorded or monitored with either a beep tone on the line or a recorded message. Employers may also monitor any work done on your computer, using software that enables them to read what is on the screen or stored on your computer terminal or disks. Other technologies available to employers include keystroke monitoring, which counts the number of keystrokes per hour per employee, and software that allows employers to tell how long your computer is idle. Time to dump Tetris, speed up your data entry skills and shorten those smoke breaks. Before you even enter a contractual work agreement with a prospective employer, he or she has the right to obtain particular information about you. An employer may conduct a background check on you to verify the accuracy of information you've provided on your resume or application. That "verification" could include your driving and credit records, workers' compensation history, court records, criminal record and Social Security number. Legally, your employer can't obtain any education, military service or medical records without your permission. In California, medical records are confidential. But, of course, there are loopholes. There are instances in which your medical records may be released without your express knowledge or authorization. According to the California Healthcare Association, health-care providers may release your records to comply with a search warrant, for example, or if it is required by laws such as those governing the reporting of certain diseases, criminal acts, child abuse or spousal abuse. They may also release records to any "payer" -- an insurer, health-care service plan or employer -- that is responsible for paying for services rendered to the patient. Your employer may also request your records if the information contained comes from employment-related health-care services performed at the written request of the employer, or if the information may entitle the employee to a leave of absence or limit his or her fitness to perform. Those are some big loopholes to crawl through. What your employer finds out may drive up the company's health insurance costs. What if your employer finds out you are HIV-positive or at risk for breast cancer or diabetes? As new technologies give employers and the government the ability to know more about us, the average citizen may be left feeling both vulnerable and violated. And as medical systems sprawl, the computerized records that make it easier to track health care also make records more accessible. In light of diseases such as AIDS, the debate centers on a patient's right to confidentiality weighed against the rights of others who may be exposed to the illness. As patients increasingly find their care dispersed among a number of medical workers, who knows what becomes a thorny game. Indeed, just as credit bureaus track the spending habits of most Americans, records on the medical histories of thousands of individuals are compiled by the Massachusetts-based Medical Information Bureau, which sells the information to health insurance companies anxious to weed out bad risks. Assurances that such information will be handled discreetly rarely reassure the public. In Tampa, computer disks containing a secret list of nearly 4,000 AIDS patients with extensive personal information -- including how they contracted the ailment -- were anonymously mailed to two newspapers. "You Are The Data"Without a doubt, the high-tech developments contributing most to the privacy debate are the computer and the modem. Reams of information ranging from motor vehicle registration to property tax rolls and individuals' voting habits have long been freely available to the public. But the advent of computers and the burgeoning online community make it frighteningly easy for people to take public -- if hard to get at -- information and cross-reference it to compile instant profiles of individuals. It's perfectly legal to possess and even sell such information. "In the precomputerized era of manual records, you would provide information to one agency or another for the limited purposes of the needs of that agency," says Howard Simon, executive director of Michegan's ACLU. "One of the things that technology has done is that they not only have the ability to store records, but to share records as well. People have no assurance that information [they] shared with one agency for one reason won't be shared with another agency for another reason. We're itchier about our privacy because it can be so much more easily shared from one agency to another." In fact, the average citizen can dig up a lot of dirt on you if he wants to. Forget the cameras and phone-tapping devices, he or she -- just like any private investigator or private detective -- can use federal and state records systems, as well as computer databases, to compile your personal dossier. Nearly every major milestone in your life is up for public inspection -- getting a driver's license, marriage, birth, buying a house, filing a lawsuit, etc. The computer makes it amazingly easy to obtain information about you; there are numerous databases that have compiled this data. Even your own online provider may be selling or "renting out" its information about you. Many of these databases, such as CDB Infotek, are primarily used by private detectives or investigative journalists. Each search costs money. But many of them, such as Excite's People Finder or the Internet White Pages, are free. Much of the information here has been voluntarily supplied by you, albeit in a roundabout fashion. Whenever you subscribe to a magazine, answer a survey or fill out a contest entry, it's likely that the information you provide on the form is later sold to an information database such as CDB Infotek, MetroMail or SearchAmerica. According to a recent article in the Nation magazine, the average American is profiled in at least 25 and perhaps as many as 100 databases. You are the product.Type in your name and your address and phone number just might pop up. Did you move? Get married? Divorced? Well, if you sent in a change-of-address form, subscribed to another magazine, entered another contest or filled out yet another survey, you'll soon find that your personal information has been updated online as well. "In California, we have the right to privacy written into our constitution; the federal government doesn't. Here we have higher expectations," says Small Navarro of the Sacramento ACLU, adding that these expectations don't always translate into actual protection. "There's a huge industry invested into the access of information. Whenever you attempt [to make changes] through the political process, they're there." And, as more government agencies put their records on computers, it's increasingly profitable for online information providers to get and resell copies of many different records. After all, this is the information age. The age of data. You are the data. "Protecting Your Privacy"There are measures you can take to protect yourself, your data, your personal information. In a move touted to protect personal privacy and reduce credit card fraud, San Francisco-based Aristotle Publishing Inc. has unveiled an Internet service that removes names and personal information from Lexis and other electronic databases. A Seattle Internet provider recently announced that its "Mr. Postman" Web site had launched a system to delete names and personal information from a Lexis/Nexis database available to the legal community, businesses and government agencies. The developments come on the heels of a trio of controversies swirling around Lexis/Nexis. Last September, the online database disputed claims that it released credit histories, bank account information, personal financial data, mothers' maiden names or medical histories through its online files. So vehement were consumer responses to potential violations of privacy that a consortium of Internet companies this month endorsed "Privacy Assured," a set of principles urging that individuals be allowed to remove their personal information from online listings, oppose the unauthorized listing of personal information and block "reverse searches," in which individuals' names can be located through e-mail, phone or address records. Last July, following a barrage of complaints, Lexis/Nexis stopped displaying Social Security numbers in personal records. And, in December, it stopped a controversial service that provided names and addresses of children. So-called "Kids Off Lists" legislation pending in Congress would require parental consent to collect and sell names of children. Its supporters include Marc Klaas, who has become a child safety advocate since the 1993 slumber-party snatching and murder of his daughter, Polly, in Petaluma. A network of digital civilliberties oganizations, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (, the Internet Privacy Coalition ( and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (, are working with the members of the Platform for Privacy Preferences, including the World Wide Web Consortium and the Direct Marketing Association, to establish a set of privacy practice guidelines. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is at the forefront of a new system called eTrust that will ostensibly promote the mass adoption of electronic commerce by labeling information-secure sites with a "trustmark." Consider it a sort of Better Business Bureau for the Web. Similarily, Net surfers are encouraged to check with their online providers to determine what kind and how much personal information is being released to independent databases. Most providers claim to keep such information private, but there are those not above collecting and redistributing data to the highest bidder. After all, you are the product."Ghosts In The Machine"OK, so you've given up on subscribing to magazines, filling out surveys and entering contests. You've made your Internet provider swear it will keep its data on you confidential. You even, just like an estimated 34 percent of all Net users, provide false information whenever you visit a Web site -- a fake name, address, phone number, whatever. Doesn't matter. Your ass is not covered. Meet the Cookie Monster. Originally known as "magic cookies" after the tokens that have mystical powers in role-playing games, cookies are an effective tool used by Web site developers to collect data on you, track your activity and derive a profile of your behavior. These cookies are embedded in sites and anonymously "handed" to you when you visit a site, causing your computer to store information about your visit to that site on its hard drive. When you return to that site, the cookie then reads your hard drive to find out if you have been there before. The cookie can tell where you just came from, what pages you've looked at and what activities you participate in while you're there. Site owners can then sell that information to advertisers and databases. Remember, you are the product.Luckily, there are ways to fight the cookie monster. The browsers for Netscape Navigator 3.0 and Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 can be configured to notify you when a Web site wants to hand you a cookie, giving you the option of whether you want to accept it. You can also delete cookies from your hard drive by doing a search for them, deleting any file named "cookie.txt". If you belong to a commercial online service such as America Online or Prodigy, it's important to be aware that the service can obtain information stored in your computer. One popular myth about AOL is that the service maintains a mammoth database of every move ever made by every member of its service. Whether this is true -- or even possible -- online services can both accidentally and intentionally pry into your home computer's memory and even copy or collect personal files, according to "Privacy in Cyberspace: Rules of the Road for the Information Superhighway," a guide released by the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse ( Online users "should be aware of this potential privacy abuse and investigate new services thoroughly before signing on. Always ask for the privacy policy of any service you intend to use," cautions the guide. What about your e-mail, all those personal and business letters you send out across the Internet to another party? Unless you are using a company intranet system, your e-mail is theoretically safe as well as legally protected under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which deals specifically with the interception and disclosure of interstate electronic communications. As outlined in the act, e-mail cannot be legally read except by the sender or the receiver, even if someone else actually intercepted the message. And no, unlike newsgroup postings (which are already part of a public forum and can be retrieved from various Internet search engines such as AltaVista and DejaNews), there are no e-mail archives floating around on the Web. You can't just go and search and retrieve from an e-mail database. And, yeah, sure, as an e-mail messenger your Internet provider could theoretically (and illegally) open, read or further disseminate your e-mail. Of course, hackers can get to your e-mail, too, if they really want to, but this is a story about privacy, not paranoia. Still, that doesn't mean you shouldn't be careful. "E-mail is more like a postcard than a sealed letter," explains Mark Rotenberg, director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "E-mail is notoriously unsafe," Rotenberg once told an interviewer. "Typical e-mail travels through many computers. The people who run these computers can read, copy or store our mail. Many voyeurs get their kicks out of intercepting mail." In a recent telephone interview, however, Rotenberg amended his views somewhat. "Your e-mail is less likely to be intercepted [by an Internet provider or hacker]. You really have to be determined to intercept mail," says Rotenberg. "It's more likely that the e-mail would be taken off your machine. It's more likely to happen in an office environment." If you're still concerned, however, there are safeguards to protect your e-mail. Encryption software allows a user to scramble a message so that a document can only be read by a party that has a descrambling "key." The two basic forms of encryption software are single-key and two-key systems. Single-key systems mean the data is encrypted and decrypted using the same key. In a two-key system, both the sender and the receiver have distinct, separate keys. The use of encryption software, however, has long been a topic of controversy. Since the advent of the Internet, the government and law enforcement agencies have been wary of encryption -- particularly two-key systems -- and have restricted the exportation of the software if it poses a national security threat. Over the years, Congress has considered legislation that would create a "back door" method (such as 1993's Clipper Chip proposal, or the more recent "key recovery" system) to allow government and law officials to decipher encrypted messages. Last month, the Economic Policy and Trade Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee approved the SAFE bill, which lifts some restrictions on exportation regulations, but the issue is far from settled. If you don't want to get involved in all that federal and legal stuff to remain incognito, you can simply choose to send your e-mail through a remailer. Anonymous remailers in a sense, "launder" your e-mail. Send your e-mail to a remailer service and it will be forwarded to its destination, stripped of all identifying information. "Someone To Watch Over Me"Some people find surveillance reassuring. They want airport X-ray equipment to scrutinize the contents of bags. With the growing popularity of the notion of angels -- and guardian angels -- some people find comfort in being watched. Scientists who study surveillance say people are more willing to give up their privacy if the choice is optional, and if they can detect or know the surveillance source. Most of us happily hand over our Social Security numbers, credit histories and tax returns to a mortgage company. But we feel it's an invasion of privacy for a potential employer to run a credit check on us. We might not care if someone knows we are registered to vote or own a car, but we do care if others obtain our financial or medical records. We care if we get the sense that someone is watching us. We don't want to live in cities such as Redwood City or San Diego, where police departments equip neighborhoods or police officers with sound pickups that transmit directly back to headquarters. We don't want to be like Detroit's Greektown neighborhood, where video cameras are installed to watch your every move. We don't want others to know how we've voted, what our financial status is or what our medical records hold. We want to protect our information, the statistics that make us up -- our privacy. Or do we?If I am the product, you must be the product, too. Science fiction author and futurist David Brin (Startide Rising, The Postman) is part of a growing faction that believes the answer to the privacy debate can be found by officially turning the tables on those who want to violate the sanctity of our private lives. In his upcoming book, "The Transparent Society" (recently excerpted in Wired magazine), Brin outlines a "mutual accountability" theory that suggests that everyone -- whether a private citizen, corporate executive or government official -- be held up to the same privacy standards. "There are a lot of legitimate privacy concerns," explained Brin in a recent telephone interview from his San Diego home. "My complaint is that only one type of solution is discussed: To shut doors, close windows and pass laws telling people what they can't know. "What I am calling for is to add a second class of solutions to the discussion -- those that involve an increase in the information flow. In other words, if a company is trying to collect phone numbers of 10 million Americans, then the top 100 executives [at that company] have to publish the same information about themselves on the Net," he continues. "We can pass a law making it illegal to gather information. But do you honestly think we can prevent them from knowing it?" Other examples Brin points to include plans in Southern California to equip urban youths with video cameras in an attempt to curtail police harassment. "It won't be long before random traffic stops look like a bar mitzvah or wedding with everyone aiming cameras at everybody else," says Brin. "The result may seem ludicrous, but the chief effect will be that everybody will be more polite." It's a system, says Brin, in which we are all on equal footing and judged by the same behaviors and available statistics. A system in which we are all the product. "Given a choice between privacy and accountability," writes Brin in The Transparent Society, "I must sadly conclude that there is no choice at all. If we remain free and sovereign, then we have little privacy -- [only] in our bedrooms and sanctuaries." Is privacy really a product, though? Or is it a philosophy, a belief system shaped by one's environment, education and resources? You can't solidly define such tenuous ideas as privacy or information. They are intangible concepts we've struggled with for centuries. And, as we hurtle into the new millennium, privacy is increasingly an amorphous commodity dividing society -- separating "us" from "them." Are we headed toward an era in which different people are afforded different levels of privacy? Could we theoretically purchase different amounts of control over our own lives, over our own information? Futurist Simson Garfinkel best defined the dilemma when he wrote in Wired magazine that "the future of privacy resists simple answers. "Privacy could be the crowbar that finally splits the classes apart for good. We already have the financially rich and financially poor and the information rich and the information poor. We may soon add the privacy rich and the privacy poor. And that could be the biggest threat to democracy yet." n***Mary A. Dempsey, a Detroit -based freelance writer, contributed to this article.

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