What do the Intel Corp., Hallmark Cards, the Secret Service, the University of Michigan, the South Carolina motor vehicle administration, CBS SportsLine and a company that gives away free computers have in common?
If you're into conspiracy theories, you could proably come up with a doozie involving this bunch. But if you're merely concerned about electronic privacy, they've all been involved in recent controversies that illustrate how easy it is for people to collect information about you and me in an age of instant, computer-based communication. And they show how easy it is for that information to fall into the hands of people we might not approve of.
The latest news first. This week Intel is unleashing a $300 million campaign to promote its new Pentium III processor, which promises faster performance (no surprise), particularly with games and fancy multimedia applications.
The P3 also has a little feature known as a Processor Identification Number - the equivalent of a car's serial number - that can be made available over the Internet to anyone who's interested in you. This makes it possible to track almost everything you do on the Internet - every site you visit, everything you buy online - and add it to your electronic dossier on someone's database. And you may have no idea that it's happening.
Naturally, privacy advocates are upset by this, and some are calling for an boycott of the Intel chip. Stung by the criticism, Intel says it will ship the P3 with the ID initially disabled, but many sites could require that the ID feature be turned on as a condition of visiting - a scary prospect.
For a taste of what can happen when people start collecting information about you - even under the most well-intentioned circumstances - consider the good folks at Hallmark. Earlier this month, we learned that the company had had inadvertently made an old file containing the names, e-mail address and intimate messages of some of its electronic card customers available on the Internet and vulnerable to hackers. An embarrassed Hallmark fixed the problem in time for Valentine's Day.
Or consider the folks who entered contests at the CBS SportsLine site last year. In December they found out that the names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses they'd left with SportsLine were available to anyone through regular Web search engines. Oops.
Or the patients in the University of Michigan Health System who learned that their complete medical records had been available for months to anybody on the University system with a Web browser. Sorry about that, the university said as it fixed the security bug. The university didn't break any laws, by the way. Congress hasn't been able to agree on legislation protecting electronic medical records - too busy with that impeachment stuff.
Speaking of the government, suppose Uncle Sam decided to set up a database with the photographs of every licensed driver in the United States - available to anyone who wanted to confirm your movements. You can imagine the screams from the Right and the Left on that one.
Well, it turns out that the Secret Service - with the knowledge of Congress - quietly funded a New Hampshire company called Image Data LLC that is trying to do just that. Image Data recently bought the photos of 22 million drivers from South Carolina, Florida and Colorado, ostensibly to set up a database that could be used to verify the identities of shoppers paying by check or credit card.
States routinely sell information about their drivers to mass marketers. For example, if you're selling high-priced vacation condos, you might want to buy a mailing list of Mercedes and BMW owners. Maryland charges 5 cents per electronic record for bulk buyers, although drivers can opt out of the system.
But apparently the photo sale was too much for the citizens of the states who hawked their pictures
Stung by the publicity, South Carolina, which had delivered the photos, is trying to get them back, while Colorado and Florida have pulled out of their deals. Look at your driver's license and think about this for a minute - even if you don't care about privacy, would you like anybody in the country to be able to call up THAT photograph of you?
Not everyone is concerned by all this. Consider the half million Web surfers who lined up at the portals of an outfit called FreePC.com (www.free-pc.com) to sign up for a free cheapo computer.
In return, they were willing to provide details of their financial and personal lives, agree to be bombarded by adds every time they turn on their gift computer, and have almost everything they do online monitored by the company. FreePC.com, in return, uses this information to sell customized advertising targeted at its customers based on their profiles.
The company says it has no intention of selling this information, but there's nothing to keep it from doing so in the future - and nothing that binds future management once the company gets to the inevitable IPO.
Alex Fowler, communications director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has an interesting take on this. At the very best, he said, it's a questionable business deal: the $500 PC becomes obsolete in a year, but the information the company gets about you grows in value every time you look at an advertisement or buy something online.
"Perhaps you should be asking a lot more for your information than just a computer," Fowler suggested.
So what should you make of all this? Well, you might want to think twice next time you give somebody information on the Web, or fill out any kind of form, whether it's an application for a dog license or a vacation contest. Find out what they're doing with this information and who gets access to it. Don't tell anyone more than they absolutely have to know.
If you're really interested in privacy, check out an outfit called Zero Knowledge Systems (www.zks.net), which has set up a service that uses Internet sleight-of-hand and heavy-duty encryption to provide truly anonymous Web browsing.
Finally, when Congress or your state lawmakers start debating electronic privacy, pay attention. This isn't somebody else's business. It's yours.