Digital world poses threat to privacy Potential abuses worry experts


"Have you ever paid a toll without slowing down?" a mellifluous Tom Selleck asks from behind the jump-cut images of a television commercial. "You will! Have you ever opened a door with your voice? You will!"

In a series of new ads, the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. projects a soon-to-be era of elegant high-tech gadgetry and seamless communication.

Yet to many who already inhabit the early outposts of this Brave New World, the information imperative has more ominous connotations. Witness this recent exchange on The Well, one of the nation's oldest electronic bulletin boards.

"Have you ever been locked out of your apartment because [you had] laryngitis?" queried science fiction author Bruce Sterling. "Have you ever been pulled over by the Highway Patrol because the electronic tollbooth checked your vehicle ID against the nationwide list of parking tickets?" added George Gleason, another denizen of The Well. "YOU WILL! Have you ever had a phone call from your health insurance company telling you they're canceling your coverage because a scan of your supermarket buying patterns showed too much beef and dairy? YOU WILL!" Mr. Gleason prodded. "Have you ever thought you had any privacy?" wrote cyber-cynic Hank Roberts. "YOU WON'T!"

The graffiti-like one-upmanship -- more than 90 entries have been logged so far -- is in keeping with the irreverence that pervades The Well. But the concerns implicit in the remarks are shared by many academics and other experts who have examined the social implications of emerging technology.

The same digital wizardry that promises to make life more convenient and productive, they argue, also poses new threats to Americans' sense of privacy, even their notions of cultural identity.

Day in and day out, Americans casually give up isolated bits of information about themselves -- every time they fill out a warranty card, pick up a prescription at the drugstore, call a toll-free reservation number -- creating a fragmented record of their existence.

Increasingly, as computer technology becomes more sophisticated, those fragments can be drawn together, giving anyone with sufficient resources a window on the identity and compulsions of millions of Americans.

When combined with information obtained from public records such as voter registration and auto license information -- data that in many cases can be quickly obtained through online data bases or computer tapes -- these scattered fragments assume the dimensions of a powerful dossier. And it's all quite legal and largely unregulated.

"As we see a convergence between telecommunications, computers and information processing, almost any transaction you enter into is leaving some kind of trace," says Joel Reidenberg, a professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York City.

The concerns are not merely speculative.

Pay the grocer or the druggist right now with a bank card or a credit card and you've not only saved yourself the trouble of writing a check, chances are you've armed the merchant with detailed information about your habits: how much beer you drink; how often you empty the cat box; whether you use condoms, take sleeping pills or eat too many cookies -- information they can use to sell you new products.

Place a call to a toll-free number to get the pollen count and you may have unknowingly handed your name and address to a pharmaceutical company that will soon be sending you promotions for its latest allergy remedy.

New uses for information

A company in New York City markets lists of people with ailments ranging from arthritis to Parkinson's disease, broken down by age, sex, income and marital status. Similar lists can be had from other companies, identifying Jews, blacks, Latinos; homemakers, divorced people, gays; contributors to environmental or political causes; rich people, retired people, even deadbeats.

Even a change-of-address form is likely to be used in ways you don't expect. Not only will your mail be forwarded, but your name will be licensed by the U.S. Postal Service to companies that specialize in updating mailing lists for publishers, direct-mail companies and others. That saves the Postal Service $400 million a year that would be spent rerouting misdirected mail. But inevitably the new addresses are matched against other data banks to come up with lists of "new movers" used by furniture salesmen, insurance agents and others in search of a hot prospect -- though postal officials say they are trying to stop the practice.

In most cases, such information is used to identify customers who fit a prescribed marketing profile. At best, it ensures that catalogs and the products they promote end up in the hands of people who want them.

Of far greater concern, in the view of some privacy experts, is the possibility that the same technology could be used to silently screen people for jobs, mortgages or insurance.

Employers, argues Marc Rotenberg, director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, might be tempted to learn about a prospective employee's health using prescription-drug records, or even credit card records reflecting how often a person visited the doctor.

And even if such overt abuses can be prevented, they say, Americans' relationship to commercial and cultural institutions may never be the same. They're at risk of becoming known quantities, incapable of anonymity except by deception.

Orwellian fears

Twenty years ago the government's growing use of large main frame computers aroused similar fears of an all-knowing "Big Brother" with centralized files on all its citizens. Congress

responded by adopting the Privacy Act of 1974, which set limits on the collection and transfer of personal data by government agencies, and let citizens sue agencies that violated the act.

In the years since, says Mr. Reidenberg, the private sector has amassed even greater power than government, as computers have become cheaper and more decentralized, and networks have made it easy to link scores of far-flung data bases.

A handful of laws have been passed to prevent unauthorized disclosure of certain credit information. Congress outlawed disclosure of video rental records, for example, after such records surfaced in the Supreme Court nomination battle over Robert Bork. Similarly, the sale of scanners that intercept cellular telephone conversations was banned after several well-publicized eavesdropping episodes involving public officials.

But most of the information gathered by the private sector remains unregulated.

And as the traditional boundaries between television, telephone and computer begin to blur, and electronic transactions become a staple of daily life, the volume of personal information collected by commercial concerns is certain to increase.

Interactive television, which in some locations allows cable customers to order movies by pressing a few buttons on their remote control, eventually will make it possible to get cash on an encoded card from your bank account, shop for clothes, order groceries, watch movies, go to work and attend school, all on one system.

With these innovations, however, comes the prospect that the private sector -- in recording each transaction -- will be able to assemble even greater information about your most essential habits.

Mr. Reidenberg and others concerned with personal privacy rights argue that consumers should be told what kind of information they are divulging and how it will be used. Moreover, they say, consumers should have the right to veto the sale of the information to third parties, or its use for some other purpose.

Some within the private sector see the need for further controls, but argue that business should be the arbiter of these standards.

Privacy advocates worry that Americans may lose what has been regarded as a fundamental right to privacy, as well as a more intangible prerogative -- the freedom to pursue their whims, whether at the symphony or the supermarket, without being incessantly second-guessed by advertisers wanting to turn a buck.

In recent testimony on Capitol Hill, Mr. Reidenberg said, "An individual's decision-making power is diminished by the same computer profiles and models that [help businesses] develop better products and services."

The prospect of more comprehensive legislation, for the moment, appears dim, although the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance recently held hearings on the issue.


Monday: Television, telephones and computers converge to form information revolution

Yesterday: Companies join forces, seeking a fortune in information technology

Today: Will information revolution strip users of privacy?

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