Private Concerns

November 18, 1990|By William Ecenbarger

NEARLY EVERY DAY WE SURRENDER SOME FACT ABOUT OURSELVES TO STRANGERS -- OUR AGE, OUR occupation, our income, the kind of car we drive, the magazines we read, the products we buy.

No single bit of information tells outsiders very much about usbut all of this data adds up to something most of us consider very important -- our privacy.

Sometimes we are required to give the information -- as when wregister our automobile or apply for a home mortgage -- and sometimes we give the information voluntarily -- as when we return a product warranty card or enter a sweepstakes to see if we are among the million-dollar winners.

Contrary to what many people believe, no laws guard the privacmuch of the information gathered by non-government agencies, such as mail-order houses, magazines, supermarkets, book clubs, record clubs and credit bureaus.

The same applies to a considerable body of personal informatiocollected by the government on marriages, divorces, births, deaths, home ownership, automobile ownership and professional licensing. This information is open to anyone who cares to look.

Until recently, our privacy was protected principally by the facthat these bits of information were so widely

dispersed that they were of limited interest to anyone. But today the computer has allowed this once-scattered information about individual Americans to be sorted and cross-referenced on huge databases to provide a kind of dossier on each of us.

There is a mainframe computer in Nevada, Iowa, with data on 115 million Americans; another in Lincoln, Neb., has collected information on 107 million citizens; and there's a computer in Richardson, Texas, with 160 million people in its database.

These private intelligence networks have been established tserve the direct marketing industry -- the people responsible for that growing mountain in your mailbox: smoked ham catalogs, ** personal letters from bank presidents, breathless sweepstakes teasers. Sometimes this material is called junk mail.

And though such material seems, at worst, a harmlesannoyance, direct marketers have developed an ability to reach deeply into the personal lives of nearly every American, and there is concern even within the industry that it has breached the threshold of personal privacy with the use of information on personal finances.

Today the mails are used to sell every product that is worn, eaten, slept in, traveled in, read or listened to by modern Americans. Industry figures show that in 1989 91.7 million Americans, more thanhalf of the adult population, shopped by direct mail. About 62 billion pieces of advertising mail -- weighing in at 3.8 million tons -- were delivered by postal workers last year. A Pittsburgh company, Priority Management, figured last year that the average American will spend eight months of his life opening direct mail.

In direct mail, the name of the game is the name. Every day thnames and addresses of virtually every solvent American are bought and sold. There are at least 10,000 lists of names and addresses for sale, either in the form of sheets of mailing labels or as magnetic computer tapes.

How do you get on a marketing list? Let us count the ways:

If your mother registers for free baby care products at the hospital when you're born.

If you have a telephone with a listed number.

If you own a car, most states will sell your name to advertisers.

If you own a home, the record of that transaction is in the files odirect marketers.

If your name appears in any legal notices in your locanewspaper.

If you have a state license for your job or profession, most statewill sell your name.

If you are registered to vote, your name, address and politicapersuasion are open to direct marketers.

If you subscribe to a magazine, most magazines -- excepReader's Digest and National Geographic -- will sell your name.

If you return a warranty card for any product.

If you buy anything through the mail, the seller will give youname to other advertisers.

If you apply for a product rebate by mail.

If you sent away for sample products, "free gifts" or "informatiokits."

If you move and file a change of address form with the posoffice.

If you are a member of any organization, your name and addresare probably being sold.

If you gave to any charity, your name and address are almossurely being sold.

If you are a member of a record club or a book club, your name ibeing sold unless you have given specific instructions to the contrary.

If you're listed in a college alumni directory.

If you have a credit card.

If you use a check-cashing card at the supermarket . . .

. . . And hundreds of other ways. We live in a data-richtechnological society, and we leave an electronic trail with nearly everything we do.

Lists are either bought and sold directly, or through third partiecalled list brokers, and as lists become more valuable more and more organizations get into the act.

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