Contemporary World Threatens Personal Privacy

THE JOURNAL RECORD, August 16, 1994 | Go to article overview

Contemporary World Threatens Personal Privacy


Consider your financial and medical records to be confidential? Get annoyed when someone eavesdrops on your conversations or phone calls? Wish to keep some information about your work or personal history secret from friends, family or employers? Prefer that others not read your mail or messages? Buy a magazine, book or video that you wouldn't want some people to know about? Worry about giving out your credit card number over the telephone? Sometimes go places that you'd rather not be public knowledge?

A "yes" answer to any of these questions indicates that you value your privacy. Most people, if they stop to think about it, would prefer to keep some aspects of their life safe from prying eyes and ears, said a University of Oklahoma expert on communication law.

But with the advent of electronic communication and a growing willingness on the part of many Americans to allow government and big business to monitor every aspect of their lives, an individual's right to privacy is shrinking at an alarming rate, says Bill Loving, OU assistant professor of journalism and mass communication.

"And the more we rely on the electronic transfer of information, ATMs (automatic teller machines) and credit cards, the more privacy we are giving away," Loving said. "We leave a record of where we go, when we were there and what we buy."

A record also exists of every telephone call, revealing what number was called at what time and how long the conversations lasted. In addition, conversations transmitted via cordless and cellular phones are easily intercepted.

License-plate numbers aid law-enforcement officials in tracking down criminals, but the numbers also facilitate an invasion of the privacy of people who are not criminals, Loving said.

For example, anti-abortion forces have been able to enter data banks and use license-plate numbers to obtain the names, addresses and phone numbers of those parked outside family planning clinics.

Reader cards that allow access to buildings with computerized door locks leave an electronic trail, Loving pointed out. In the interest of security, some universities either use or are considering the use of reader cards for access to dormitories. But such a system also would keep track of residents' comings and goings.

"This is a serious invasion of personal privacy," Loving said.

Those who use the information superhighway are leaving a record of everything they download, Loving pointed out, including material that some governments might consider subversive or some employers might consider disloyal.

The courts have upheld the firing of employees who sent e-mail critical of their boss or company, ruling that the company owns the electronic mail.

"When you put something on the information superhighway, you have no idea who the audience is," Loving said. …

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