TCS Daily

You Have Zero Privacy...Get Over It!

By James Freeman - May 15, 2000 12:00 AM

Do you own the story of your life? Is information about you part of your personal property? Well, you might wish that it were. But in our free society, despite what you may hear from politicians, there is no broad "right to privacy."

In the famous Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, the Supreme Court did find a right to privacy in this passage from the 14th Amendment: "...nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." The word "liberty" was construed to mean "privacy," but that notion has not been universally applied.

If you had an absolute right to privacy, you would have total control over the use of your personal information. But that's not the way it is. Your neighbors don't need to buy a license to talk about you. You're free to tell your friends what you thought of the service at Bob's restaurant, whether Bob likes it or not. In a more extreme example, a child molester can't prevent newspapers from publishing his name.

The press serves its purpose and we all expect some neighborhood gossip, but when you look beyond the neighborhood, how much privacy do we have a right to expect?

News reports tell of "identity theft" in which criminals use the personal data of law-abiding citizens to obtain bogus credit cards. State governments have made big money selling driver registration data to marketers. Several popular websites have been investigated for allegedly violating their own privacy policies.

So what should we do? Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, expressed his view in a 1999 response to a question about online privacy. Said McNealy, "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." That may be true, but it's not exactly a satisfying answer.

I decided to find out what the average person can do to safeguard her personal information, or to avoid unwelcome intrusions. A group called the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse publishes suggestions for consumers. Here are a few of them:

- Avoid using your Social Security Number unless it's absolutely necessary - it's the key datum for someone looking to get bogus credit cards in your name.

- Think twice before you join a CD club, contribute to a political campaign, enter a sweepstakes, or even donate to a charity. Your name and address will be maintained on a "sucker list" and probably sold to other organizations.

- Don't call 800, 888 or 900 numbers if you don't want to hear from telemarketers in return. They use a version of caller ID and then add your number to a database to receive future pitches.

- Don't use credit cards. They produce an electronic record of where you've been, when you've been there, what you bought and how much you spent.

- Get an unlisted telephone number.

- If you don't want your insurance company to know about a medical condition, pay cash and edit the hospital waiver to allow only doctors to get necessary information relating to a specific situation.

There's a pattern here. You might want to follow some or all of these tips, but they all involve costs.

Protecting your privacy is worth some sacrifices, but maybe you really want to get 10 CDs for a dollar. Maybe you prefer to use credit cards. And you might not have the cash for that medical bill.

In the normal course of life, we accept that freedom involves trade-offs. An open society means that people are free to gather information and share it. We sacrifice some privacy, but we gain opportunity. Your resume tells a lot about you to a complete stranger, but the stranger may offer you a job. When you send the resume around town, you give up any claim to keeping that information private. It could hurt you -- your current boss might hear about your job search -- but you decide it's worth the risk, given the upside potential.

Right now, politicians are considering a number of privacy bills in Washington. In trying to protect us, they should be careful not to take away our choices about privacy and opportunity.

Keep in mind, no matter how careful you are and regardless of how many industry regulations are enacted, we live in an open society. According to the government, the details of your life are public information -- your birth, your marriage, your children, your address, and eventually your death.

It's also worth remembering that only people living in rich countries have time to worry about things like intrusive marketing. To put it another way, in the words of comedian Chris Rock, "You don't find a lot of Ethiopians who are lactose intolerant." And despite fears of technological threats to our privacy, this problem is not new. As a friend of mine says, "I do believe in privacy. That's why I don't live in a small town."

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