Business Technology: A New Definition Of Privacy

There's lots of talk these days about privacy--what is it; what does it mean; what is it worth

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

October 26, 2001

5 Min Read

There's lots of talk these days about privacy--what is it; what does it mean; what is it worth; can it be sacrificed and if so for what; does it still exist; are marketers taking it away from us; is the government taking it away from us; are the airlines taking it away from us; are we taking it away from ourselves; should we have national ID cards, and so on.

Now, I'm all for privacy, on both a personal basis and in my professional capacity with InformationWeek. Our coverage of privacy issues, questions, and challenges has been accelerating in the past few months, and it will be one of our dominant themes for the next year. We'll continue to explore it from the perspectives of businesses and consumers, organizations and individuals, products and technology, and a nation at war.

Yet, I think we as a society have perhaps begun to protest too much. Some people say they won't buy a new breed of digital video recorders because they believe it's part of a conspiracy by Hollywood or Madison Avenue to uncover their assorted behaviors and proclivities by monitoring what they watch and how they watch, storing that data somewhere (the device is, after all, digital), matching that data to their homes via a secretly embedded GPS chip, and then, bingo, turning on the brainwashing.

“For once, let’s have no ‘grief counselors’ standing by with banal consolations, as if the purpose, in the midst of all this, were merely to make everyone feel better as quickly as possible. We shouldn’t feel better. For once, let’s have no fatuous rhetoric about ‘healing.’ Healing is inappropriate now, and dangerous. … A policy of focused brutality does not come easily to a self-conscious, self-indulgent, contradictory, diverse, humane nation with a short attention span. America needs to relearn a lost discipline—self-confident relentlessness—and to relearn why human nature has equipped us all with a weapon (abhorred in decent peacetime societies) called hatred.”—Lance Morrow, Time magazine, special issue, September 2001

Then there's the matter of what my brother the professor would call "a free good, with a cost." At the local grocery-store chain, I have saved anywhere from $10 to $20 each week by using that store's "frequent shopper" card--that is, by giving the cashier my card to swipe before my groceries are scanned, I receive cardholder-only discounts ranging up to about $20. Within the next few weeks, that store will give me a choice of $10 cash or a 10-to 12-pound turkey to thank me for the business I've given it in the past year. So what's the cost for all these "free" perks?

A few years ago when I signed up for the card (now a key chain), I had to give my name, address, and telephone number. So did I just sell my personal privacy for a turkey? If I buy the Oreos with the filling that turns kids' tongues blue, will the store's data-analysis team downgrade (upgrade?) my profile from Boring to Twisted?

Do the airlines have the right to look through every item in my suitcase, or is that an invasion of my privacy? Does my employer have the right to monitor my E-mail and voice mail and that of all its employees, or is that an invasion of my/our privacy? Do state governments have the right to force gun buyers to wait a few days before taking possession of their purchases while their backgrounds are checked for criminal records, or is that an invasion of gun buyers' privacy? Do airlines and airports have the right to deny employment as security guards to convicted felons, or is checking their past an invasion of their privacy? Do states have the right to inform residents in a community that a convicted child molester is moving into that community, or is that an invasion of that person's privacy?

These thoughts of privacy and costs and benefits came to mind last Thursday night as I read about the Senate's passage of the antiterrorism bill by a vote of 98 to 1. The bill gives law-enforcement agencies unprecedented powers to monitor, track down, arrest, and detain suspected terrorists and accomplices. I was immediately intrigued to find out who cast the one dissenting vote, and why. It was Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, a Democrat, who explained his decision in part by saying, "There is no doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch terrorists." He qualified that somewhat by adding that if we were a police state, we would not be America. My, my--good thing this police state lets people say things like that.

We are a nation that cherishes many types of freedom, including privacy. We are also a nation at war, against a brutal and ruthless enemy whose forces clearly live among us. In such a context, we need to be willing to think long and hard about exactly what privacy is and what it is not. And what constitutes, in a lot of ways, an invasion.

Bob Evans
[email protected]

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