Internet invasion can be stopped

Privacy: Safeguarding this most basic right is simple, even in cyberspace.

April 30, 2000|By James B. Rule

THESE ARE unsettling times for us privacy advocates. Every day seems to bring new reports of surreptitious cyber-sleuths collecting Americans' personal information -- typically for purposes never authorized or intended by those whose lives have been invaded.

A recent case in point is the effort to combine personal data unobtrusively collected on consumers' Web site visits with marketing data that will identify these same users by name, address, income level and lifestyle.

Techniques for seizing personal data are mutating constantly. Prescriptions and phone records are now fair game for information scavengers. Their ultimate aim is highly predictable: to capture our attention and our consumer dollars for the benefit of those willing to pay most dearly.

Obviously, all these activities erode privacy. What's alarming is that some commentators have apparently written off that value as an anachronism in an "information age." Who cares if once-intimate details of people's lives circulate from one databank to another? What important interest or principle is threatened by that?

The answer to these questions goes well beyond privacy in the traditional sense. It's not only a matter of whether we can keep secret the phone numbers we call or our medical needs concealed or our taste in Web sites hidden. Even more important is the question of what it will mean to be a citizen of the emerging information society -- whether we will be masters of new information resources or targets for bombardment by those controlling the flow of data.

For its earliest prophets, cyberspace promised vast gains for informed individual choice vs. the interests of government and private institutions. Today's information society has traded the prophets for profits. In cyberspace, for example, providers of Internet services describe themselves as "renting eyeballs" -- directing the attention of users to commercial options dictated by the highest bidder. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with having one's eyeballs rented -- or one's e-mail spammed, or one's mail box and home phone overwhelmed by commercial solicitations -- if only one chooses these options freely. But such freedom of choice is lost when one's personal information is seized and used without permission. True, organizations scrambling for our data aim to elicit our "free choice" of their products and services. But they hardly want to help us consider the full array of possibilities. To the contrary, they hope to make sure that their message drowns out everything else.

We privacy advocates yearn for a quite different kind of information society. This would be a world where we control our own information, rather than having it controlled by others. Our choices wouldn't be set out for us by whoever can afford to "rent" our eyeballs. The choices would be ours. A world of this kind is entirely attainable. The obstacles to achieving it are by no means inherent in the technology. Instead, they arise from the imbalance of power between data-hungry organizations and privacy-seeking individuals. That imbalance could readily be redressed by legislation guaranteeing individuals strong rights over their data. Such protections could include a sweeping prohibition of release of personal data without explicit permission. This principle is the rule in the European Union.

Another measure would make all "private" citizens the owners of commercial data on themselves. At a minimum, any such protection should afford individuals the right to "just say no" to the appropriation of such data -- preferably simply by not saying "yes."

Of all the world's liberal democracies, the United States is among the weakest in protections of this kind. If we want to realize the true promise of the information age, our legislators must ensure our privacy.

James B. Rule is a sociology professor of the State University at Stony Brook in New York who consults on information policy. He wrote this article for Newsday.

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