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4/22/2004
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Not Everyone Is Bothered By Fed Access To Personal Data

It seems that people older than 30 reared in the United States are the most bothered by companies handing over records to the government, Parry Aftab says.

Most reports of airlines sharing passenger information with third parties mention government receipt of the data. It makes bigger headlines when Big Brother can be implicated. Interestingly enough, this is a much bigger issue within the United States than it is elsewhere in the world.

In Europe, for example, the laws are directed at keeping personal information out of the hands of commercial entities, not governmental ones.

Until Sept. 11, 2001, the most-notable privacy laws in the United States related to what information the government can obtain, how it can obtain it, and with which agencies it can be shared. We have been consumed with preventing agencies from gathering information about us, while we're happy to be enrolled in every commercial mailing list and frequent-buyer club in existence.

Whom do we trust? Our post-attack laws suggest not the government. Perhaps that's why such a fuss has been made about the passenger records being released to the government. Yet, the federal government was only one of the entities getting the data; the others were government contractors or wannabe contractors.

Why should consumers be more fearful of government having their personal information than private entities? Or is it the media that fear governmental information collection?

A cursory survey I conducted among family and friends shows a split among age groups on this question. Those under 30 don't worry about the government having any personal information about them. They believe that as long as they aren't doing anything wrong, they have nothing to hide. While they worry about credit-card and Social Security information being stolen, this they see as a security, not a privacy, issue.

Those over 30 (especially those who remember the '60s) fear government surveillance and want to protect all private information from agencies at any cost. They aren't happy about companies having this information either, but trust them more than the government. In my quick poll, Republicans trust the government more than Democrats do.

The techies I know fear governmental data collection. Do they know more than the rest of us about how the data is used? Or do they just "vant to be left alone"? (The ones I polled hate to even answer their phones, so they might not be a good normative group.) Where's the line to be drawn? Is this a matter of "none of your business, Big Brother" or sloppy security concerns? The answer may depend on where you live, what you do, your politics, and how old you are. Is the government really to be feared? Or should we merely fear security breaches and privacy violations from all sectors?

While I was disturbed about the data release, I was much more disturbed that Social Security, income, and home-ownership information could be quickly purchased from the data-management company used by the airlines and matched to passenger records.

I was even more disturbed by the fact that a contractor who received this information was careless enough to build it into a PowerPoint presentation and allow it to be posted online. This, not whether the government has any personal information about my travel patterns, struck fear in my heart. What about you? Drop me an E-mail and let me know: Parry@Aftab.com.

Return to main story: Actions Must Follow Privacy Mea Culpas

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