Widening Privacy Concerns

Article excerpt

(Editor's Note: Privacy is an issue that is rapidly rising to the forefront of information industry concerns. Business credit information is easily available online, and other kinds of public, personal information are not difficult to obtain. DATABASE published an article on the topic, "For the Record: Information on Individuals," by Nora Paul in the April 1991 issue. An editorial in the same issue also addressed privacy concerns. This article discusses privacy issues emanating from the European Community's effort to address the topic, as well as other concerns arising from electronic information media and distribution.--NG)

Draft directives proposed as part of the European Community's 1992 effort have the potential to limit seriously the ability of European and U.S. online database companies to distribute information in Europe, and to collect and process information. In addition to this dramatic action, several other events have focused a spotlight on the issue of privacy in relation to the electronic collection and distribution of information. These events include the: * Much publicized withdrawal of Lotus and Equifax from marketing CD-ROM products providing consumer and business credit information. * Involvement of companies such as Epson America and Nissan Motor in litigation over the confidentiality of electronic mail messages between employees. * Debate, sparked by the caller ID feature that displays the telephone number of the person calling, on the ultimate right to privacy of the caller or the person being called.

These events raise important questions about the nature and control of personal data in the U.S. and other countries, both at home and at work. U.S. laws contain important safeguards regarding personal privacy, with judicial remedies. In some other Western countries, however, concern over centralized government files on individuals has been instrumental in the enactment of more stringent laws impacting both the underlying telecommunications infrastructure, and the services making use of that infrastructure.

Almost eight out of ten (79%) U.S. citizens have concerns about privacy in the computer age. According to an opinion poll conducted by Louis Harris and Associates, Inc. for Equifax in 1990, they believe that privacy ranks with "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as a fundamental right. Just under half (45%) of the 2,254 consumers that were part of the poll agreed with the statement that "technology has almost gotten out of control," while almost three-quarters (71%) feel they have lost all control over how personal information about them is circulated and used by business.

European activism in this area underscores the importance of adopting U.S. standards on privacy protection. Current U.S. federal and state action in this area is best described as a patchwork of legislation and guidelines that address the consumer's right to privacy. It will become increasingly essential for the U.S. to go on record with uniform guidelines given the international activity underway, and the obvious concern by U.S. citizens regarding privacy protection.

Privacy protection might take the form of self-policed industry guidelines or formal national legislation. Representative Robert Wise (Democrat, West Virginia) reintroduced a bill in early 1991 to create a Federal Data Protection Board to act as a "watch dog." Nothing happened to the bill, but the issues it addresses will not disappear. In addition to the activity underway in the U.S. and the EC, the Council of Europe, the OECD, and the United Nations are all addressing the privacy issue.

When asked about the situation, a senior executive at Dun & Bradstreet responded with these comments:

I think that the industry should work

with the government on this matter. In

order to be credible in Europe we can't

allow the Europeans to say, "Go away.

You're abusing the system in America,

you do not even have any guidelines. …