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Losing our Privacy

Losing our Privacy


by Kerby Anderson


 


 


            We are losing our privacy in many ways. Sometimes it is hard to see because these intrusions happen incrementally. We lose a bit more of our privacy each year and therefore don't see the loss unless we compare it to what we used to have.


 


          We also have a younger generation that seems generally unconcerned with threats to their privacy. Many of them are sharing intimate details of the lives on Facebook and MySpace. Why be concerned if companies, the government, or the general public knows details of their lives when they voluntarily share those details on social networks?


 


How are we losing our privacy? David Holzman in his book, Privacy Lost: How Technology is Endangering Your Privacy, talks about the seven sins of privacy. Although I will use his framework, I will be providing my own reflections on each of them.


 


1. Sin of Intrusion - The classical form of privacy abuse is intrusion. In previous ages, it took the form of voyeurism or peeping. Technology today allows for a much great intrusion into our lives and is often much more difficult to detect.


 


In recent years, we have read about how actors, models, and sportscasters have had their privacy violated by people who placed cameras or listening devices in their rooms or on their person and recorded them. But it isn't just the famous that are being recorded. Every day pictures are being taken of us as we walk into banks, into grocery stores, or past ATM machines. We are being recorded on the streets and at traffic lights.


 


2. Sin of Latency - Most of the damage to your privacy comes from stored information. The harm is minimized if personal information is not retained. The sin of latency comes from the excessive hoarding of information beyond an agreed-upon time. Most companies do not have a data-aging policy.


 


It is understandable why companies and the government collect excessive information. For example, they need to have enough information so they know they have the right person. There are lots of John Smiths in a particular locality. They need to know you are the particular John Smith they want. In the past, a telephone number was sufficient identification. Now we have more than one phone and change numbers regularly. So our Social Security number and other identifiers are necessary.


 


3. Sin of Deception - With so much electronic information available in databases, it is tempting for individuals, companies, and even bureaucrats to use personal information in a way that was not authorized by the person.


 


When a company or governmental agency asks for personal information we should have the right to know three things: what they are going to do with it, how long they will keep it, and whether they will make it available to others. We may naively assume that they will be the only ones who will see that information. Most of us would be shocked at how much information about us in the hands of people who have never met or done business with.


 


4. Sin of Profiling - Past behavior is not always a perfect predictor of future behavior, but it can be a surprisingly accurate one. That is where profiling comes in. Collecting information about what goods and services someone purchases can enable companies to predict a consumer's future purchases.


 


One of the best known examples of profiling is credit scoring. Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion rely on FICO scores. A high score will help you get a home loan. A low score may result in being denied a home loan and even having to pay higher interest on other forms of credit. Most Americans don't know their credit score (only about two percent), and most do not understand the algorithm used to calculate it.


 


5. Sin of Identity Theft - Most of us know what identify theft is because it has happened to someone we know or else we have heard commercials about how to protect ourselves from identity theft. Although this crime did exist in the past, it has exploded on the scene now because of technology and the changing nature of transactions. Personal information is readily accessible on the Internet. And in the electronic marketplace of today, purchases are not made face-to-face. It is easy for someone to assume your identity and leave you with the consequences.


 


Sometimes all a hacker or thief needs is your Social Security number and your mother's maiden name. Unfortunately it is relatively easy to obtain this information. Universities, banks, and all sorts of institutions use your Social Security number as your identification number. Genealogy files online most likely have your mother's maiden name.


 


6. Sin of Outing - Some privacy violations are deliberate and can take place when someone reveals information that another person would like to remain hidden. The term "outing" is usually used to describe a public revelation of a closet homosexual, but we can use the term to describe any information that is published about a person they do not want to be public.


 


Sometimes outing is a good thing. Think of all the potential pedophiles that have been caught because they thought they were chatting online with a potential underage victim. Sting operations by the police have successfully revealed the motives of some who intend to proposition their young victims.


 


7. Sin of Lost Dignity - This last concern is more difficult to quantify, but we all realize that when private information is made public, we can lose a part of our dignity. What if all of your medical records were made public? What if every essay you ever wrote in school was available online?


 


Even public figures (like politicians) believe they should have a zone of privacy. Past and current presidents have refused to publish all of their medical records, school records, and other private information. While we may debate whether public figures should reveal all of this information, we would probably all agree that private citizens should not lose a zone of privacy in their lives.