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
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
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. …