Privacy in the Computer Age

By Bacard, Andre | The Humanist, January-February 1993 | Go to article overview

Privacy in the Computer Age


Bacard, Andre, The Humanist


Swish. Click. Swish. Click. The sound of computer disk drives and printers can be heard 24 hours per day around the globe. These computers are spreading gossip about us. What are they saying?

William Safire of the New York Times wrote:

We are frisking each other. Picture

yourself going to work tomorrow,

handing over blood and urine samples,

taking a quick turn with the

house polygraph, turning out your

pockets and walking through some

new fluoroscope. You object?

Whatsamatter, you got something

to hide?

Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal, answered: "An employee with nothing to hide may well be an employee with nothing to offer!"

Journalists Safire and Smith worry about our privacy in this Computer Age for good reasons. Every day we hear about privacy in relation to abortion, AIDS testing, credit ratings, IRS audits, medical records, or mailing lists. Today, it is hard to purchase an automobile or to vote without somebody plugging into a computer to verify our existence.

Our Computer Age is a double-edged sword. The good news first. Economical desktop or laptop computers let us search encyclopedias, dictionaries, and vast databases by pressing a few buttons. We often label this positive power the "Information Age" Now the bad news. The same computers permit credit agencies, insurance companies, and governments to collect, store, and sell data about us. Our "confidential" medical and bank records move freely from computer to computer - usually without our consent. Often the data in computer files is incorrect. For example, one Californian's life became a nightmare after 12 strangers began using her Social Security number for credit scams. I call this dark side of computer technology the "Surveillance Age"

How should humanists react to this cohabitation with computers? Around 1900, Frederick W. Taylor, the "father of scientific management," urged employers to dictate their employees' smallest movements. In 1992, Big Manager's obsession with surveillance begins before we join the payroll. Corporations use lie detectors, voice-stress analyzers, urinalysis tests, fingerprints, retina scans, blood tests, and (not only in California!) handwriting analysis and astrology to screen us from other applicants. A popular software package, Auto-AOC (for Advance Office Controls), tells managers how quickly workers should move. This program dictates that it should take 7.5 seconds to open envelopes and 2.9 seconds to staple papers. In 1977, our calls to Bell Canada operators lasted 85 seconds on the average. A decade later, because of computer monitoring, the average call is 27 seconds. Operators are tempted to hang up on people with speech or hearing defects in order to fulfill their robotic quotas. Some of us hold that these computer usages attack our basic dignity; others among us hold that job efficiency is more vital than privacy.

Spying by corporate computers is spiraling. Computer designer Stephen Hollander told a Canadian conference: "More than 100 pieces of equipment described by George Orwell in 1984 now exist." Congresswoman Barbara Pringle of Cleveland tried to outlaw this inhumane monitoring of people; how, ever, her bill was killed by the business community. "It's crazy," she says. "You stop to sneeze, and the machine says you're behind"

Criminal databanks also pose a threat to law-abiding citizens. Today, records about select criminals (usually excluding Fortune 500 and US. government-employed white-collar criminals) are stored in central computers. A major example is the FBI's National Crime Information Center. No doubt this system helps apprehend dangerous persons who should be behind bars, but what happens when the system goes haywire? Imagine yourself in the position of John Smith (an alias).

A few years ago, an Alabama prison escapee ("Carl") got his hands on a copy of Smith's birth certificate. …

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