Advances in technology raise privacy questions

October 03, 1990|By Peter H. Lewis | Peter H. Lewis,New York Times News Service

A great debate is raging over "Caller ID" telephone services, which display the number of the calling telephone on a small liquid-crystal display screen.

Some people say the service will enhance privacy by allowing the receiver to screen unwanted calls. Others say Caller ID has the potential to erode privacy by, for example, forcing the caller to divulge an unlisted number.

In either case, many people believe the computer technology that underlies the advances in telephones is likely to emerge as the focus of the privacy debate in the electronic 1990s.

In more advanced Caller ID phone systems, the incoming number can be matched against a computer data base, allowing the answering party to do an instant check and to answer the phone ready for action.

"Hello, and thanks for calling Pizza Pig," the answerer would say as he picks up the receiver. "It's 10 a.m., so it must be you, Mr. Lewis. Would you like us to deliver your usual Tuesday lunch special, anchovies and Limburger, to your home?"

If I indeed wanted the special, I would view Caller ID as a timesaving tool. However, there are many instances where I would prefer that businesses, government agencies and others not have the opportunity to collect such detailed personal information about me.

Now, it is telephones that are the focus of the privacy issues, because virtually everyone makes or receives a call each day. However, as personal computers increasingly permeate the most basic areas of our lives, the focus will almost certainly shift to computers and the importance of good electronic citizenship.

We know that computers allow the dissemination of vast amounts of information, by pulling data from data bases and online information services. Computers also allow government and businesses to gather vast amounts of information about citizens and customers.

One need not be pathologically paranoid to be worried about the security of all the personal data that we have given deliberately or otherwise to computers over the years.

For example, computers are used by the telephone companies to make billing more efficient. A typical monthly phone bill includes a listing of such things as calls made, the number called, the date and time and the duration of the call.

Using a reverse directory, one of the standard tools used by reporters as well as by phone companies, one can easily get the names, occupations, addresses and many other pertinent details about the telephone numbers listed on an itemized bill.

Anyone with access to a person's telephone records can gain a great deal of information about the person, even without listening to the calls.

For example, one might discern from a certain telephone bill that Lewis spent more than an hour talking to his tax accountant, that he placed several calls every night to the "Call Jose Canseco" sports line and that he calls his mother every Sunday night.

It might also reveal that he has calls forwarded to a beach house each weekend.

The computers used by credit card companies keep similar records.

A monthly statement reveals, for example, that Lewis spends a lot of time in restaurants -- especially the Pizza Pig -- and that he bought a lot of equipment from an Apple computer dealer, that he visited San Francisco last week, that he buys clothes from mail-order companies and that he buys a lot of airline tickets.

Marketing companies might salivate at such information.

The computerized receipts from the grocery store reveal that Lewis drinks a lot of Diet Coke and has an unusually robust appetite for junk food.

The store doesn't do so now, but it might also capture his driver's license number when he pays by check, or obtain debit card information that reveals where he does his banking.

In the bookstore, the computer prints an itemized receipt that helps the store maintain its inventory. It also shows that Lewis favors computer magazines, books on astronomy and novels by Latin American authors.

Such information might allow the store to notify a good customer of new arrivals that he might have a high probability of buying. But it also gives even more information about his way of life, his philosophies and, perhaps, his political leanings.

When Lewis goes online, which he does every day, the computer gathers still more information, revealing that he regularly taps into certain forums on CompuServe and that he maintains regular electronic MCI Mail correspondence with a set of friends and business colleagues.

He also belongs to other services that identify him as an active participant in environmental activities.

Add to all this his credit records, which are stored in a mainframe at TRW, and his Social Security records, his medical records, his military and tax records, and it becomes clear that computers contain an incredibly detailed picture of his life, including such things as occupation, income, family, health, relatives, nationality, education, criminal record and buying habits.

All of the information was gathered innocently enough, and viewed from the perspective of its original intent, it seems innocuous.

But supposedly secure national computer systems have been victims of publicized break-ins, and in light of that, the potential for that information to be obtained and cross-referenced with other data bases, and to be used for purposes wholly unrelated to the original intent, is frightening to many people.

Most of us have no way of knowing all of the data bases that contain information about us. In short, we are losing control over the information about ourselves.

Many people are not confident about existing safeguards, and few are convinced they should have to pay for the benefits of the computer age with their personal freedoms.

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