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CFP'91 - Hendricks

Computers and Privacy in the Pivotal Decade

Evan Hendricks

Editor and Publisher
Privacy Times
P.O. Box 21501
Washington, D.C. 20009

The 1990s promises to be the decade that determines the course of our information and privacy policies for many decades to come. With the year 1990 behind us there are many disturbing signs which should concern those who feel privacy is a fundamental right, one that is indispensable in a democracy. There are also a few indications, though much fewer in number, which give some cause for hope.

In a forum such as this, it's necessary to define what I mean when I talk about privacy, and what my newsletter, Privacy Times, has been covering for 10 years. It's about information privacy, the right to control data about you that is kept by scores of mega-institutions, both governmental and corporate.

To understand the root of the problem, one must know that the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1976, ruled that individuals do not have a Constitutional right to information privacy. They reasoned that when you open a bank account, for instance, you voluntarily surrender information about yourself to the "flow of commerce." Thus, the information belongs to the bank, which, under the Constitution, is free to do with the data what it will: give it to the police, sell it to marketers, private eyes, supervisors, etc. The same reasoning applies to information concerning you that is held by third parties: phone companies, insurers, employers, direct marketers -- even the garbage.

It's because of the Supreme Court's anti-privacy rulings that statutory law is so important when it comes to data about us held in institutional computers. Of course, this is not new. A Presidential commission, in 1977, recommended that Congress enact several laws to shore up safeguards for personal data. The commission also called for the creation of a national office to be in charge of privacy policy. That was 14 years ago. To date, Congress has enacted only a fraction of the protections that this bipartisan commission said were necessary. Most of the proposals, including the one for a national privacy policy office, did not receive serious consideration during the entire past decade.

So, if we were falling behind in 1977, imagine where we stand today, after an unprecedented explosion in information technology that stuns even the most casual onlooker. The powers that be like it that way. Government institutions regularly have used their vast stores of personal data to control or take out their chosen targets. When agencies wanted to harass poor people, it began computerized comparison of massive databases under the guise of catching welfare cheats.

When the Reagan administration wanted to get "liberals" out of the civil service, or science advisory boards, it drew up hit lists. It also infiltrated the Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and kept detailed dossiers on people who were doing nothing more than exercising their First Amendment rights. I have seen many cases in which people who were denied security clearances couldn't get access to their records to see what they were accused of or who had accused them. Assuredly, many people in government could see these files, but not the subjects of the data.

At least the weak and largely ignored Privacy Act provided a few rights in relation to federal records. But in the private sector the lack of laws and corporations' growing creativity for finding ways to make money from personal data has created a cowboy atmosphere where virtually anything goes.

For example, the Fair Credit Reporting Act says "credit report data" are only to be used for "credit purposes." But the major credit bureaus have opened marketing divisions that allegedly sanitize credit report data so it can be used for marketing without violating the FCRA. More recently, Equifax went into partnership with Lotus in order to put marketing data on 120 million Americans on compact disc. Certainly this practice violates the spirit of the FRCA, but neither Congress nor the Federal Trade Commission has done anything about it.

Medical data and records of our genetic makeup might be the most sensitive details of our lives, but we have no right to see correct or limit disclosure of that data. The kind of surveillance that some bosses impose on workers rivals anything some of the most notorious totalitarian states ever did. The 1980s was an "anything-goes" decade for junk bond fiends and other financial scamsters. But we've already seen the bill is coming due and that a backlash will lead to new regulations and, hopefully, better enforcement.

In the same way, the abusive information practices of American corporations during the 1980s have now affected negatively so many people, including prominent people in media and government, that the horror stories are coming out of the woodwork and creating a "snowball effect." This in itself is significant because, in the past, some could say that there "wasn't enough evidence" of abuse that would justify new regulation of corporate information practices. The parade of war stories from the last year was enough to disprove that.

But it is not enough to win passage of legislation for adequate legal rights; laws that were recommended by a predominantly Republican commission 14 years ago. What must be confronted is the fact that we don't have the laws we need because certain sectors of the American business community, along with government, have formed an anti-privacy lobby which, due to lack of focus and little effective pressure on lawmakers, has been able to derail most proposals that politicians generally could not oppose in a highly visible context.

The challenge now is to raise the visibility of the campaign for privacy protection and focus its energies on obtainable, constructive solutions that don't get so watered down along the way that they do more harm than good. It's actually hopeful that privacy has landed in its proper context. Don't forget the cliches that characterize our era: an "Information Society" or "Computer Age." Information privacy is a human right that is now pitted squarely against the economic prerogatives of businesses that traffic in personal data and against the government bureaucracy, ever-more hungry for data that will improve its control over the population.

It is in this sharpened context that the chances improve for pushing through the necessary solutions. These include: a national office in charge of privacy policy, an overhaul of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, national protections for medical and genetic testing data, limits on employer surveillance and a general right of access to all personal data kept on us.

In the end, the debate over privacy is one over Big versus Small. Information is power. Right now the big institutions hold nearly all the information, and the legal rights pertaining to it. If we believe in democracy, we also need to democratize our information practices. In that context, adequate privacy laws would provide a sort of legal slingshot for individuals seeking to fend off the computer-equipped Goliaths that surround them.

Copyright, 1991, Jim Warren & Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility All rights to copy the materials contained herein are reserved, except as hereafter explicitly licensed and permitted for anyone: Anyone may receive, store and distribute copies of this ASCII-format computer textfile in purely magnetic or electronic form, including on computer networks, computer bulletin board systems, computer conferencing systems, free computer diskettes, and host and personal computers, provided and only provided that:

  1. this file, including this notice, is not altered in any manner, and
  2. no profit or payment of any kind is charged for its distribution, other than normal online connect-time fees or the cost of the magnetic media, and
  3. it is not reprodunor distributed in printed or paper form, nor on CD ROM, nor in any form other than the electronic forms described above without prior written permission from the copyright holder.

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