Digital age checks privacy at door

Thanks to new technologies and increasingly interwoven global communications networks, information on just about anything can be obtained quickly and cheaply for the purposes of anyone’s choosing. It’s being heralded as progress by those who thrive on free access to data.
But the free flow of information has its costs.
Of course journalists love the opportunity to access this information via a growing list of resources. Our paychecks depend on our ability to use everything from computer generated, online delivered, faxed or CD-ROM catalogued reports, to stats on demographics or psychographics or social histories.
Knowledge is power, yes. But information is not always knowledge.
Unfortunately, we live in an age where true knowledge — and the wisdom it requires — has little to do with this onslaught of catalogued, processed, manipulated, and too often abused kinds of information available to everyone on everything we care to access. As a result, we have lost, at least, a share of privacy to the amount of information available on each and every one of us.
John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the leading spokesmen for maintaining an unregulated Internet, recently hosted an online forum on the subject of protecting online privacy. One of Barlow’s arguments against new restrictions of access to on-line information was that previously established legal protocol had already secured such information.
Barlow was right in assuming that certain kinds of legislation and safeguards restrict access to confidential materials via any means. However he underestimated the lengths to which some snoops are still able to go with little or no interference.
During the forum, Barlow became embroiled in a debate with a hacker over how much personal information was available to a third party on the Internet. When Barlow insisted that the hacker wasn’t as cunning as he thought, the anonymous discussant amazed everyone in the forum, especially Barlow, by accessing Barlow’s personal credit files — accounts, purchases and debts — and posting them on the screens of everyone in the discussion.
Of course the direction of conversation took a wild turn. Advances in new technology have sacrificed everyone’s privacy — even those most dedicated to the First Amendment.
This is only the second half of the introductory lessons in information gathering that journalists will encounter. The average Joe and Jane are already well accounted for in the public record. Birth, death, marriage, divorce, driving and arrest records, political affiliations, and applications for housing improvements are among the information that we can obtain with less skill than a computer hacker. The task is as simple as marching off to city hall.
Other information, which you might suspect is confidential, still, inevitably winds up in the hands of people far removed from the source.
I once stumbled into such a situation on a short-term job. I was asked to verify employment applications, given the information that was obtained by the company from a variety of institutions — all of which could have been contacted by the employers themselves.
It didn’t take long to lose a taste for reading about every applicant’s personal history. Some of the stuff was more sensational than even a self-respecting journalist would want to know — sexual assaults, murders, expulsions, jumped parole. I still remember one woman’s record, which said she had been arrested in New Jersey for 95 felony accounts of prostitution in one week.
The job seemed like it should have been more up the alley of the secret police, not a bunch of desperado students. However, these sorts of record inquiries, at the hands of privately owned companies, occur every day all around the country. My few weeks experience had just skimmed the surface.
What’s even more amazing is how much information is out there that isn’t necessarily on the public record, but is compiled by independent researchers and marketing firms for purely economic — not civil — purposes. Much of this information is volunteered in inconspicuous ways, via applications, consumer surveys, prize drawings and purchase orders.
Many of us have probably entered drawings for giveaways at a local grocery store, or even for the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes. The allure of big money seems simple enough, and the thought that our volunteering information for the sake of winning that prize is about all anyone entering has in mind.
What about that drawing you entered for the $1,000 shopping spree at StereoLand? Well all of that information you offered — your name, your address, your age, your year in school, your annual income — all of it is sitting in the files of some independent marketing contractor’s data base right now, being processed for the next round of StereoLand’s sales blitzes. It’s being combined with other information from the public record to see if you qualify for the next sweepstakes offered by StereoLand’s parent company, StereoöberAlles.
You didn’t win the prize, but you won a ton of new junk mail and the chance to contribute your cash to corporate, worldwide domination.
Beyond that, the same independent marketing contractor is about to sell their list of the 1000 top spending StereoLand stereo owners to CDLand’s marketing representative. Don’t be surprised if you get on CDLand’s mailing list, as well as those of BMG and Columbia House. If you have any luck, some day, you might wind up in the files of Time Warner, or Random House publishing. A 50 percent discount on Better Homes and Gardens could even be headed your way!
If you want to avoid the headaches of never-ending sales pitches being thrown your way in the mail or on the phone, don’t trust anyone in the marketplace — especially with details of your personal life. You can start by declining to offer those cogs running the registers at Best Buy your zip code.
More importantly, if you’ve ever given your social security number out to anyone who didn’t require it, it was probably a mistake you don’t want to make again. Every important application you’ve filled for banks, school, credit companies and tax files might be in the hands of someone who shouldn’t have them.
Remember to treat sales pitches deemed “the opportunity of a lifetime” as ones which rarely — if ever — meet our expectations of no strings attached. When Dad said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” he was right.
But after all is said and done, that harmless little entry for a shopping spree will still make you one of the millions of numbers in a giant marketing equation. Unfortunately, some brat kid out there now has access to your personal credit files, namely, everything you’ve ever bought with a credit card, and then some.
While we can celebrate the kinds of information now available to us, the kinds that lead to true knowledge and power, the more information that is collected and regurgitated without making any of our lives truly better, the more our identities will become sets of data, statistically graphed and mutilated.
If the leading economic indicators are right, the bottom line price of the information age is a price that we will continue to pay with something our ancestors called the soul.

Gregory Borchard’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached with comments via e-mail at [email protected]