Snooping by computer

November 05, 1996|By Daniel S. Greenberg

OF THE MANY forecasts for the next century, an easily safe one is that privacy will be a goner. The computer is already leading to that in medical recordkeeping, personal buying patterns and even in tracking our physical whereabouts. And we're only in the beginning stages of keeping tabs on everything about everyone.

Every now and then there's an outrageous assault on privacy, such as the recent surfacing of thousands of AIDS patients' names from a supposedly secure filing system. However, the shrinkage of privacy is mainly an invisible process. The consequences can be tangible, as reflected in a new worry arising from progress in science, job discrimination based on quietly gained information about genetic defects.

Congress periodically agonizes over threats to privacy, but the legislative response has been paltry because information technology outruns technical and statutory controls. Marketing specialists find gold in the electronic trails of product preferences and buying habits created by credit card users. Homepage "hits" on the Internet are trackable for identifying consumer interests. And when bar-code readers take the place of toll collectors on bridges and highways, cars, too, will be leaving a trail. Some place out there in the electronic ether, dossiers on all of us are filling with data.

Hackers wreaking havoc

In and around the health-care industry, a thriving conference circuit bleats on endlessly about reconciling patient privacy with making computerized patient records easily accessible to those who legitimately need them. The list is long -- doctors, nurses, pharmacists, hospital clerks, insurance managers. However, with so many hands just a few keystrokes away from access, it doesn't take an Aldrich Ames to plunder the files.

The frequent intrusions of hackers into supposedly secure computer systems in government agencies, banks and elsewhere should throttle illusions about computer privacy. Patient information is valuable for companies selling medical products and for screening of prospective employees. Where there's a demand, the goods will be delivered if the price is attractive.

The police and security services of various kinds are, of course, naturally inclined to high-tech prying. But limited budgets and constitutional impediments will allow the cops only a sliver of participation in the new era of comprehensive surveillance. It's people with commercial motives, backed by ample corporate bankrolls and computer specialists, who will be tuning into our lives.

Their aims are simple: they want to profit from knowing more about us than we'd like them to know. With that knowledge, they aim to sell us something immediately, identify us as potential customers worth cultivating, or tag us for some other purpose -- such as being too risky for employment or insurance.

For all those purposes, the computer is the weapon of choice. It would be a crude weapon of limited commercial value if security could actually be achieved. But the hacker usually gets through. In fact, as society becomes increasingly dependent on complex systems, electronic aggression has become the great nightmare for national security, energy supply, transportation and so on. The horrifying secret of the computer age is that teen-age vandals can produce havoc, and malign professionals could do even worse. That they haven't so far is no testimonial to security.

The big systems that keep the modern world running can be hardened, as computer specialists are urgently recommending, to reduce risks of mischief to manageable levels. The costs are worth it, because the consequences of failure are too great.

But individual security is another matter. There's no profit in making credit card records theft-proof or in imposing security on medical records that might be needed quickly in an emergency.

Computer technology is well on the way to obliterating privacy in numerous facets of our lives, and anyone who thinks the process can be tamed, let alone reversed, is living in Luddite dreamland.

Relax. The obvious solution is lowered expectations concerning what they know about you.

Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of Science & Government Report, a Washington newsletter.

Pub Date: 11/05/96

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