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6/25/2004
01:50 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
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Business Technology: Privacy Isn't The Only Thing That's Important

Professional whiners who believe they were put on earth to protect and speak for the rest of us have turned the discussion about preventing further terrorist attacks on this country into a debate over what sort of food airline passengers eat. That's not privacy, Bob Evans says--that's lunacy.

Today, like a slug leaving a trail of sticky, gelatinous, glistening ooze in its wake, I left an electronic schmear across not only the island of Manhattan but also across the electronic archipelago we live in: an electronic subway card purchased with a credit card that showed what station I entered at what time and which station I left and when; the same credit card pinpointed where I bought a bagel (toasted, dry) and orange juice (plus calcium, minus pulp) and newspapers (the Post and the Journal); my company ID card logged what time I entered the building in the morning, when I left for lunch, and what time I came back; at the office, a central phone switch posted who called me and when and for how long, plus whom I called and all that; my cell phone added to its never-ending record of incoming and outgoing calls; a log of E-mail messages I sent and received included not just sender and receiver but also full text of what they said to me and what I said to them; my employer's Weblog tracked all sites I visited and for how long and where I clicked and what I bought (or didn't); the all-knowing credit card took copious notes on where I had lunch, maybe including not just how much I spent but also what I ate and drank--was he alone or with others? did he balance his food triangle with vegetables? does he eat fried foods? what kind of tip did he leave? how long was he there? did he drink any alcohol? did he spend more on himself than on his guests? did he order dessert? did he have fat-free dressing on his salad?--and whether I went anywhere after lunch before returning to work; some electronic record-keeper knows whether I used affinity cards that would tell the office-supply store precisely how many Sharpies and large paper clips I purchased and, on top of that, how many I've purchased in the past year; our company's servers could be analyzed to determine the number of key-clicks I banged out before lunch versus after, and did what I have or didn't eat or drink at lunch affect what I did or didn't produce before and after lunch, and how many E-mail messages offering me sex and drugs and stocks did I ignore, or open and delete, or click through, or glance at, or dally over, or pore over, or sweat over, or buy from with the tattletale credit card, or return to as part of an unmistakable pattern.

Should I be afraid? Should I be terrified? Should I hear jackboots in my sleep? Is every year from now on going to be 1984? Is it true that the Justice Department is trying to acquire, via hostile takeovers, the ACLU, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and other professional whiners who vainly and condescendingly believe they were put on earth to protect and speak for the rest of us because we're too stupid to take care of ourselves?

Is the routine outlined above your routine or your nightmare? Does it put you in a rage, or is it a lot of sound and fury signifying zippo? Is that Big Brother's hot, stinky breath on the back of your neck, or is it just How Things Are here in an electronic society that gives us greater productivity, instant access to our information, nearly unlimited entertainment choices, low-cost communication links around the world, and more access to all manner of stuff than any generation before us could ever in their wildest hallucinations have possibly imagined?

But let me share the source of this ranty introspection, triggered by a news item from last week:

"The Transportation Security Administration's use of personal information to test airline passenger-screening technology was more extensive than originally thought. The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee learned Wednesday that at least eight airlines and airline-reservation services handed passenger data over to contractors working for TSA."

And did you know--sit down for this one--that those data could include--brace yourself--your choice of meal? My friend and colleague Brian Gillooly told me about that one the other night--said he'd heard it on the radio as part of the larger discussion of this new apocalyptic escapade. After fainting from the sheer existential terror of such a revelation, I did a little research, and here's what I found (WARNING: NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART):

"The data--called passenger name records--include credit-card numbers and contact information such as phone numbers and addresses. Some sensitive items, such as meal requests that could indicate a passenger's race or religion, will either not be transferred or will be filtered out by U.S. authorities, the officials said."

Oh, the humanity!

Now, privacy is a hallmark of this great country, recognized and codified in our Bill of Rights. It is one of the main reasons millions and millions of people from 185 countries around the world want to leave where they are and come here. It is an inextricable part of our individual beings and of our national character. It is worth arguing about, fighting for, and dying for.

And that's why the nonsense about the privacy invasions and totalitarian feet in the door behind the government's airline-security information strategy is so galling. Let me offer another example of the claptrap I'm talking about:

" '[The program] would not likely remain truly voluntary for long as passengers are for all intents and purposes forced to get one in order to avoid humiliating and inconvenient 'second class' treatment at the gate,' Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty Project, told Forbes. 'Not only are terrorists going to be able to bypass security through forged documentation and fallible technology, the little guy is going to be subjected to the same hassles at the airport, while the first-class or business passenger gets a free pass,' Steinhardt added."

You see, it's voluntary but it's not voluntary--and it's not about national security, it's about class warfare, and it's about protecting you 'cause you're little!

And why don't we hear more about all the technological safeguards that the system has in place?.

But for all of the millions of words written about the awful privacy threat this poses to our everyday lives, and for all of the hand-wringing and sanctimonious lecturing by the "advocacy" groups noted above, there's another very imminent danger that barely ever gets mentioned in these overwrought press conferences and communiqués: Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Stewart Verdery recently said, "There have been a number of cases where we've found terrorists or significant criminal violations due to this" information-security system. In fact, the story in which that quote appears is not about such breakthroughs, but rather focuses on the potential for abuse and misuse, and all the safeguards the European Union insists upon before it will cooperate with the United States, and so on. It is not until the final paragraph--the very last sentence--that there's any mention of why this is being done and of the successes the system has already produced.

Privacy is as important as it's always been. But it's not the only thing that's important, and as your company continues to shape and develop and carry out its privacy policies, don't be railroaded by the screechers--they're not concerned with doing the right thing, they're only concerned with getting mentioned in the media.

They will distort the truth to make their points, and no matter how hard you might try to play along with their game, you are the enemy because you are a for-profit enterprise, and because of that they will be more than willing to attack you if it suits their purposes. You think I'm delusional? Well take a look--they've turned the discussion about preventing further terrorist attacks on this country into a debate over what sort of food airline passengers eat. And that's not privacy--that's lunacy.

Bob Evans
Editor in Chief
bevans@cmp.com


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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