Private Lives Lost Via Computer

Article excerpt

PRIVACY FOR SALE: HOW COMPUTERIZATION HAS MADE EVERYONE'S PRIVATE LIFE AN OPEN SECRET By Jeffrey Rothfeder, Simon & Schuster, 224 pp., $22.

A LITTLE more than a decade ago, David Burnham, a reporter for The New York Times, published "The Rise of the Computer State," a disturbing tale of how Americans are systematically losing their privacy as aspects of their lives are indexed and tabulated on government and private computer systems.

Now Jeffrey Rothfeder, a former editor at Business Week, has returned to the scene of the crime in "Privacy For Sale: How Computerization Has Made Everyone's Private Life an Open Secret." In the past 10 years, the situation has only gotten worse. And despite being burned by invasion of privacy themselves, neither Congress nor the White House will pass legislation that would reverse the trend.

Rothfeder made headlines several years ago when he obtained and published the credit report for Vice President Dan Quayle. A summary of that report, as well as detailed information about CBS anchorman Dan Rather's personal finances, is reprinted in "Privacy For Sale."

Although all the juicy information is X'ed out, its still an invasion of Quayle's and Rather's privacy. And that's just the point, argues Rothfeder: Everyone, even people in positions of power who go to great lengths to keep such information private, is subject to "data rape."

Rothfeder's main tool of inquiry is the "super bureau" - information brokers who tap into the large credit databanks of companies like TRW or Trans Union and resell the records to virtually anyone with a few hundred dollars. Frequently credit profiles are augmented with information from databanks containing employment history, unlisted phone numbers, medical records, driving records, social security withholdings, and, occasionally, reports from private investigators.

"Privacy For Sale" paints a disturbing picture of a vast info-underground, buying and selling personal information as if it were cocaine. And indeed, on many a street corner in New York City, $10 buys a phone call to anywhere in the world for an unlimited amount of time, made possible by the magic of stolen telephone credit-card numbers. But there's more, says Rothfeder: Whole networks have sprung up in the past few years with the sole purpose of stealing the credit histories, social-security numbers, and entire identities of unsuspecting victims and reselling them to illegal aliens.

Rothfeder's formulaic book follows a pattern well-developed by others: He tells a "horror story" of a person whose life was destroyed by a database that had been tapped by unauthorized users, he shows how systematic errors and the release of personal information has become a fact of life, and then he shows why the political will is lacking to make any changes to a system that nearly everyone acknowledges is out of control. …