Computer Privacy Questioned

By Dees, Tim | Law & Order, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Computer Privacy Questioned


Dees, Tim, Law & Order


It takes an effort, but it is important

It may be no great surprise that one's privacy is limited and threatened in this heavily wired age, but the degree to which one does enjoy privacy, and the issues that are threatened, might be a source of astonishment.

Many police officers take unusual measures to maintain their privacy. Unlisted telephone numbers, utility accounts in assumed names and mail delivery to post office boxes are typical countermeasures used to keep police "clients" from harassing the officer or his family. However, unless one has resorted to living a hermit-like, cash-only existence, there are probably records concerning your personal activities that are easily available, for a price, and to virtually anyone with the resources to purchase them.

Data mining resources such as AutoTrack XP (http://www.autotrackxp.com) and Lexis-Nexis (http://www.lexis-nexis.com/lncc) are used by law enforcement and corporate agencies to locate people and generate leads for everything from sales to civil process service. You may be surprised to know how much information these services have about you, as well.

The last time I checked my AutoTrack XP dossier, it contained my full name, my wife's name, both of our social security numbers and dates of birth, the makes, models, VINs and registrations of the vehicles we owned, the addresses where we had lived for the previous five years (including our present address), the names and addresses of our neighbors, and snippets of employer information. All this was searchable by knowing only my name and some additional criteria, such as approximate age, city of residence or place of birth. Procurement of this file wasn't expensive: it cost about $16 and took less than five minutes.

What can you do to limit this kind of distribution? Probably not much, but both services do offer contact information for their privacy compliance managers on their Web sites.

The business of collecting information about individuals is huge. If you or your spouse uses a discount or "club" card at the supermarket, a database of everything that you purchase is being recorded with each trip to the store. The nominal purpose for this is to target consumers for promotional campaigns. If you buy a lot of store-brand yogurt, then a competitor might purchase your name and address to send you a coupon good for free cartons of their product, trying to get your business. If you regularly take home disposable diapers, well-baby clinics, photo studios and day care centers might be interested in contacting you.

But, what if your beer, wine or liquor purchases are made known to your health or life insurance carrier, or your employer? Could your perceived drinking habits limit your career potential or keep you from acquiring additional life coverage at a preferential rate?

Surfing the Web is especially hazardous to one's privacy because so much information is exchanged behind the scenes where it is not readily apparent. The most overt gathering of data occurs when a Web site requests your name and address information to add to their mailing list, or to enter you in a contest. The information you provide is gold to the company that puts up the Web site, as each targeted subscriber record can be sold. The free book, pamphlet or chance to win a CD player that you get in return is peanuts for them.

The information stored about you is usually contained in a coded form in files with the cute name of "cookies." Unless you have your browser set to reject cookies, or you have some type of guard dog software running that alerts you to the attempted storing or altering of a cookie on your hard drive, the exchange of cookies is more or less transparent to the user.

Cookies can be very useful- and innocent. For instance, when I log onto amazon.com, the cookie that amazon has placed on my hard drive, coupled with the account that I have established with them, causes the displayed Web page to greet me by name and show me some suggestions for purchases that are based on books and other items that I have bought there previously.

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