Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.
Data and details of people’s lives used to be stored in mainframes that were hard to access. PCs and local servers in combination with the Web changed that. Imagine how freely information rushes in the geometry of the Net. Far more privacy and secrecy has been destroyed than most people realize. And this information is for sale.
The privacy issue is not only about how much information is available about you, but also about what kinds of information are swirling about and are easy to get. How do I know thee? Let me count the ways…
Companies can buy or sell data taken from credit card statements or product warranty cards or insurance reports. Organizations can learn which restaurants you prefer, what dishes you eat a lot, whether or not you were hospitalized or had a car accident, which magazines you subscribe to, and where you’ve taken vacations.
All transactions involving credit or debit cards, all phone calls, all dealings with any government, are recorded. Databases like Acxiom Corp. sell information about income, race and religion as well as names and addresses. Your choice in books, clothing and political groups are on record as are the drugs you’re taking, your marks and class standing, what you bought and where you browse. Employers can easily learn if you posted your resume online. Every time you use your supermarket club card, your purchases are recorded. In 31 states genetic information can be released without your permission, in 39 states there are no privacy rights for birth defects and in 33 there’s no restriction on divulging mental health records. Only 4 states protect information about abortion. Electronic tollbooths record individual cars. Closed-circuit TV cameras operate 24/7 and at least three-fourths of America’s large employers monitor their employees’ phone conversations, Web surfing, key strokes and e-mail. Employers can know how much time you spend on pornography sites or chat rooms or e-catalogues or online brokers or gambling and they know who sent the raunchy or hostile e-mails.
Many people don’t realize that the personal information they provided, for instance, when they buy on-line, can end up on another web-site. So, the anonymous visit you made to legal sites which you’d just as soon keep under wraps – pornography, Dr. Ruth’s sex advice site, hate groups, sexual perversion meeting rooms, a Gamblers Anonymous chat room, and I Hate My Boss message board, an AIDS information site – may not be anonymous because your name and address were supplied by another Website.
The ABA’s Family Law Section has recently developed a seminar to teach divorce lawyers how to gain access to a spouse’s e-mails, hard drives and visits to computer sites in divorce or child custody cases. Your record of online shopping could be devastating information in the hands of an adversarial divorce lawyer. The details of where you browse and linger could become public in a lawsuit. And, as touchy as it is in the wake of terrorism, this widespread information lends itself to entrapment as well as subpoenas.
Forbes reporter Adam Penenberg challenged Web detective Daniel Cohn to start with only his name and come up with as much information about him as he could. Two days later Cohn called with Penenberg’s birth date, address and Social Security number. It took five minutes, Cohn said, and I’ll have the rest within the week. Using only a computer and a phone, Cohn took six days to come up with the most intimate details of Penenberg’s life.
Cohn was able to tell Penenberg how much money he had in the bank, his salary, his utility bills and the amount of his rent. He got both of Penenberg’s unlisted phone numbers and told him whom he called late at night. Cohn knew how much money Penenberg deposited a month and how much he spent a week. He knew the name of Penenberg’s psychotherapist and how much he paid her a month. Cohn found three bank accounts that Penenberg had forgotten. Cohn knew the balance, the deposits and withdrawals, the visits to ATM’s, check numbers, and the amounts and dates of Penenberg’s cash management account at Merrill Lynch.
Web detectives can identify your secret lover, discover hidden assets and locate your deadbeat spouse. Your medical, financial and driving histories are open to anyone. There appears to be no limit to the detailed information about individuals that is collected, stored, manipulated, and sold. As computers and the Web make accessing easy, the price of getting this information is in free fall. Precious secrets now go for cheap. Chances are very good that this is going to get a lot worse. The reason this is so scary is even if you’ve led a blameless life, there is now swift, easy and inexpensive access to enough personal information that it lends itself to assertions about people based on nothing but inference.
Several years ago, Judge Robert Bork lost his chance for a seat on the Supreme Court largely because opponents to his nomination got hold of Blockbuster’s record of the movies he rented and others got access to what he read. From this information – and not his judicial decisions and writings – conclusions were made about his mental processes.
Invasion by inference is truly Orwell’s 1984.