Americans Must Wake Up to "Sleeper" Issue of Privacy Rights

September 23, 1999 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — A state sells its driver’s license records to a stalker; he selects his victim — a Hollywood starlet — from the photos and murders her.

A telephone company sells a list of calls; an extortionist analyzes the pattern of calls and blackmails the owner of the phone.

A hospital transfers patient records to an insurance affiliate, which turns down a policy renewal.

A bank sells a financial disclosure statement to a borrower’s employer, who fires the employee for profligacy.

An Internet browser sells the records of a nettie’s searches to a lawyer’s private investigator, who uses “cookie”-generated evidence against the nettie in a lawsuit.

Such invasions of privacy are no longer far-out possibilities, writes New York Times columnist William Safire. The first listed above, the murder of Rebecca Schaeffer, led to the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act.

That Federal law enables motorists to “opt out”– to direct that information about them not be sold for commercial purposes.

But even that opt-out puts the burden of protection on the potential victim, and most people are too busy or lazy to initiate self-protection.

Far more effective would be what privacy advocates call opt in — requiring the state or business to request permission of individual customers before selling their names to practitioners of “target marketing.”

In practical terms, Safire said, the difference between opt in and opt out is the difference between a door locked with a bolt and a door left ajar. But in a divided appeals court — under the strained rubric of commercial free speech — the intrusive telecommunications giant U S West won. Its private customers and the public are the losers.

Corporate mergers and technologies of E-commerce and electronic surveillance are pulverizing the walls of personal privacy. Belatedly, Americans are awakening to their new nakedness as targets of marketers.

Your bank account, your health record, your genetic code, your personal and shopping habits and sexual interests are your own business. That information has a value. If anybody wants to pay for an intimate look inside your life, let them make you an offer and you’ll think about it.

That’s opt in. You may decide to trade the desired information about yourself for services like an E-mail box or stock quotes or other inducement. But require them to ask you first.

We are dealing here with a political sleeper issue. People are getting wise to being secretly examined and manipulated and it rubs them the wrong way.

Politicians sense that a strange dissonance is agitating their constituents. But most are leery of the issue because it cuts across ideologies and party lines — not just encrypted communication versus national security, but personal liberty versus the free market.

That’s why there has been such Sturm und Drang around the Financial Services Act of 1999. Most pols think it is bogged down only because of a turf war between the Treasury and the Fed over who regulates the new bank-broker-insurance mergers. It goes deeper.

The House passed a bill 343 to 86 to make “pretext calling” by snoops pretending to be the customer a Federal crime, plus an “opt out” that puts the burden on bank customers to tell their banks not to disclose account information to marketers. The bank lobby went along with this.

The Senate passed a version without privacy protection because Banking Chairman Phil Gramm said so. But in Senate-House conference, Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama (who already toughened drivers’ protection at the behest of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and the ACLU) is pressing for the House version. ” ‘Opt out’ is weak,” Shelby tells me, “but it’s a start.”

The groundswelling resentment is in search of a public champion. The start will gain momentum when some Presidential candidate seizes the sleeper issue of the too-targeted consumer.

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