The Great Privacy Swindle
To get a job these days, chances are you'll have to pee in a bottle. Your intimate medical history can be laid out in front of just about anyone willing to pay to take a peek. Every company with a credit card, store card, or Web site -- or even a clerk who asks you nosy questions at the check-out counter -- is looking to peddle "data" about your buying habits. In many states you have to hand over your fingerprints to renew your driver's license. Public and private spaces alike are constantly scanned by ever-more-observant surveillance cameras.
When we're asked for our Social Security number to rent a video, many of us simply shrug our shoulders rather than raising hell. And if we happen to be poorer than a video-renter -- a footloose kid hanging on a street corner or an unemployed motorist guilty of "driving while black," for example -- we're liable to be locked up and lost in a vast criminal "justice" system that considers itself not responsible for any rights, especially privacy rights.
Invasion of our privacy has become a way of life, so that when you stand up and demand to be left alone, you're likely to be pegged as a quaint holdover from days gone by, a whiner, or, more likely, someone with something to hide -- maybe even a terrorist! We're living in a culture in which individual rights have been sold and subjugated, all for database marketing and to keep the lid on the unruly masses.
This is an issue that has fallen off the political radar. What are the chances that privacy rights will engage the mighty intellects of George W. Bush or Al Gore? Last I looked, the only people in Washington overly concerned with privacy were the corporate check-writers and their pet politicians, eager to cover the tracks of their own financial quid pro quos.
The Data Market
Behind the shiny glass doors of your not-so-friendly, not-so-neighborhood bank, everything they know about you is for sale -- your account numbers, bank balance, loan history, address, credit history, Social Security number. The checks you write and receive, the invoices you pay, and the investments you make reveal as much about you as a personal diary; but instead of banks keeping your information under lock and key, they collect it, cross-reference it, collate it, and sell it -- mostly to companies determined to sell you something else. The banks get 20 percent to 25 percent of the sales revenue generated by the marketers who buy the information.
In the brave new culture built around the marketplace, both corporate and government sectors have deemed private and personal information to be just another commodity.
Things got worse with the passage by Congress of last year's "financial modernization" bill. This new deal for the bankers was written with the help of banking-industry lobbyists, and it allows banks to merge with insurance companies and brokerage firms, creating financial conglomerates that can conglomerate what they know about you, without so much as a courtesy call to ask your permission. The only "protection" now is that if a bank wants to share information from a credit report or loan application, it first must send you a notice with the chance to say no, a so-called "opt-out" provision.
But why is the burden on us to opt out of an agreement that lets someone else sell something that rightfully belongs to us? Before such an agreement can even be considered, they should be required to get our permission in advance -- to ask us to "opt in," and to take it as "no" if they don't hear from us. That was the proposal put forward by a coalition of consumer-interest groups when the bank legislation was being debated. It was defeated by a majority of members of Congress, who took in a total of $87 million in soft money, PAC, and individual contributions from the financial industry in the last election cycle. The industry also anted up to the tune of $260 million in lobbying expenditures during the same time period. (New "opt-in" bills have been introduced again this year in the House and Senate.)
Selling Your Medical Secrets
While the finance guys are padding their fortunes by telling each other what we buy, where we buy it, and on whose credit, there's another booming trade going on in selling our personal medical secrets.
Our health histories are for our eyes (and our doctor's eyes) only, right? Wrong. This precious data is likewise on the market and up for grabs by whoever's interested in buying. Employers can check out prospective employees to make sure they don't get stuck with someone whose health problems are going to run up the company's insurance premiums. And health-care firms can fill your mailbox with sales pitches promoting the latest drugs or devices to treat whatever it was that you went to the doctor for.
The Kennedy-Kassebaum health care reform law of 1996 was supposed to give us a measure of federal protection. But that has yet to happen, and in the meantime, the Clinton administration's stop-gap suggestions are lame: Medical information could not be disclosed for commercial reasons, but the government could still access our data for other reasons. Law-enforcement agencies, under Clinton's plan, would have virtually unlimited access to medical records, making them a vast police database to be used like mug shots or fingerprints -- except that the cops wouldn't have to arrest you before accessing your private health history.
The Identity Market
Already, our Social Security cards, which were never meant to a tool for anything but our security, have become a basic means of keeping track of us, for both marketers and the police.
But now, driven by dreams of a citizen databank available to government at every level, public officials are falling over each other with new proposals for keeping us tabbed. The International Association of Chiefs of Police wants DNA samples from anyone who is arrested for any reason (as opposed to tried and convicted), while New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wants to take DNA samples from all newborns.
Filing our DNA in a government databank is about the ultimate in unreasonable search and seizure. How far we have come from the days of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who said, in his famous dissent in Olmstead v. United States (1928): "The makers of our Constitution ... sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred as against the Government, the right to be let alone -- the most comprehensive of the rights of man and the right most valued by civilized men."
DNA tracking is not just an assault on the principles embodied in our Constitution -- it has very real, and frightening implications: Employers could deny you a job because your genes include a tendency toward certain diseases or health defects, and insurers might use DNA-derived information to impose limits on your health-care coverage.
Not to be outdone, governments are not just compiling these databases to keep tabs on us unruly ones, they're selling the data alongside the corporate vendors. One estimate is that federal, state and local governments are making tens of millions a year selling public records to junk mailers and other businesses.
Big Daddy Is Watching
If Corporate America has been playing the role of Big Brother, our government is Big Daddy. The feds have a history of routinely spying on us citizens via surveillance cameras and questionable wiretaps. Now come new Federal Communications Commission rules that will enable the FBI to dictate the design of much of this nation's communications infrastructure. If finally enacted, these rules will allow the FBI to track the physical location of cellular phone users, as well as to monitor Internet traffic, opening up brave new avenues for government interception of digital communication.
As it turns out, that's only the half of it. In recent weeks, says The Wall Street Journal, the FBI unveiled a powerful new "data-sniffing" Internet wiretap dubbed "Carnivore" -- it's called that because of its ability to sniff out "meat" as it stalks through the Internet's data jungles. "Carnivore" was developed over a year ago and has already been used to monitor an unspecified number of e-mail communications.
Plugged directly into an Internet service provider's computer network, "Carnivore" can, in the words of the Wall Street Journal article, give the government "the ability to eavesdrop on all ... digital communication from e-mail to online banking to Web surfing."
While "Carnivore" stinks as bad as a T-bone after two days in the trash can, it's the Little Brother to the infamous Project Echelon, the still-plausibly-deniable satellite surveillance system erected by the U.S. government and select NATO allies during the Cold War. Echelon, which only came to light in the American press after the story was first broken in New Zealand, keeps humming along all these years after the Cold War, just so our spooks can eavesdrop on us private citizens. This global surveillance system uses the Echelon satellite as a giant cyber-vacuum in the sky, sucking up communications traffic, which is then checked for certain words and phrases to provide various intelligence agencies with whatever information they've happened to request. And it's not just being done to protect national security; these days, corporate customers are being fed information about their foreign competitors in the name of global trade!
Corporations are getting into the act on the home front, too.
Consider this come-on by an Internet detective agency: "The place to find, locate and track down anybody! ... Discover the secrets of the people with whom you associate." All they required, reports Jeff Barbian in the San Francisco/Bay Area Computer User, was a name.
Barbian tells of a man named John who entered his own name and got back 82 pages featuring the photo off his driver's license, his Social Security number, height, weight, religion, the make and year of his car, the value of his house, his son's name, age, school, and teacher's name; his job and salary, his employment over the past 10 years, every address he'd ever had, his neighbors' names (with addresses and phone numbers), his military records, cellphone number and bank account number; his mother's maiden name, credit-card debts, traffic violation history, dental records, pharmaceutical prescriptions, the 20 e-mail addresses he uses most often, the Web sites he frequents, and "how much he lost in Las Vegas last spring."
Virtual snoops are also invading our schools and gathering information on kids without their parents knowing about it, much less being asked permission. The ZapMe! Corporation, an Internet provider that's backed by such giants as Microsoft and Dell Computer, is a case in point. ZapMe! already has contracts with 6,000 schools and, on the surface, the contracts look great: The company provides computers, Internet access, maintenance, and support services free of charge. What the company gets in return, however, is an agreement that their computers will constantly flash ads at the bottom of the screen, for the four hours a day the students are supposed to be online. Plus the schools must agree to hand out sponsors' promotional materials for the kids to take home. Plus ZapMe! tracks where the students go on the Web and delivers that as demographic information to its sponsors -- with no control over how the information is used or to whom it can be sold. ZapMe!, just in case any of this worries you, calls itself a "champion of students' privacy rights" and swears that it would never misuse any personal information.
Ah, for the simpler days of 1984, when George Orwell imagined that all this high-tech snooping and file-gathering would be used to spot and snuff out society's troublemakers and dissenters before they threatened the system.