WASHINGTON — When you pay for your supermarket purchases with a credit card, everything you buy is remembered by the computer, including your name. It is then sold by the store to marketers who want to target your tastes or to someone who may not wish you well.
When you browse the Internet, you may think your visits to offbeat sites are anonymous, but an army of Big Brothers is recording your every click, selling a dossier on you to prospective employers or potentially predatory neighborhood snoops.
When you equip your car with a snazzy navigation device, or breeze through toll booths with an E-ZPass, you are telling buyers of "location wireless" data exactly where you are. That data can be retrieved and used against you in lawsuits a generation hence.
"You have zero privacy — get over it," said Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, in the modern version of William Vanderbilt's "The public be damned!" (Sun's stock plunged by two-thirds off its high; investors are trying to get over it.)
Perhaps, on your visit to the supermarket, you picked up a package of condoms or a pregnancy-testing kit, or in the book section, just for a joke, bought a paperback guide to concealing assets abroad or a salacious videotape. Perhaps, zipping though the electronic toll, you were slipping off to a ballgame on a workday. Perhaps, in browsing the Net, you stumbled into a pedophile chat room or some other site being monitored by the FBI.
In any of those instances, your privacy — a free American's right to be let alone — has been stripped away. Some people don't mind; they like to get mail from strangers, are unconcerned with the sale of their Social Security numbers to potential identity thieves and profess to never have anything to hide.
But the believer in personal freedom is saying to the compilers of dossiers: Ask me first. Before following my movements and recording my habits, get my approval — my informed, written consent. I have the right to decide how much information about me to reveal to you for your profitable use or sale.
Consumers who assert that fairly simple principle are under attack from the information industry. Aware of rising public resentment at the explosion of secret commercial surveillance, the merchants invading customer privacy have come up with a public relations ruse: They call it "opt out."
In pious press releases about their reverence for privacy, they place the burden squarely on the customer's back. If you don't want us to sell a profile about you, say the datamongers, it's up to you to direct us to stop. Send us an e-mail or click over there "opting out" if you're one of those uppity types; unless you take the initiative to warn us off, we'll just assume silence is assent.
That's a fraud and a sham. The datamongers know that most people don't know the dangers of target marketing and won't take the trouble to protect themselves. That's why marketers are fighting a proposed law that sellers must first get the buyers' consent. Industry finds it harder to invade privacy for profit when it has to persuade a consumer to voluntarily "opt in."
Three times in the campaign, George Bush expressly committed to support a new federal law requiring "opt in" consumer consent. In the Senate Commerce Committee, ranking Democrat Fritz Hollings has a bill doing just that.
But Chairman John McCain is too preoccupied with campaign reform to focus on protecting privacy. Worse, Senate Democrats John Kerry and Bob Torricelli are going along with the industry's "opt out" deception.
This is not a principle to be compromised. Americans will either insist on a libertarian Age of Consent or succumb to Big Brother's Age of Surveillance.
New York Times News Service