How dearly do you value your privacy? Are you willing to exchange it for a free computer? Or perhaps a discount on your groceries?
A recent survey by the New Jersey-based Center for Social & Legal Research suggests that the majority of Americans, about 55 percent, are "privacy pragmatists," willing to give up some privacy in return for something of value. The rest of the population is split evenly between people who would not give up their privacy for anything and those who don’t feel strongly about the issue.
Not that consumers are always given the chance to drive a bargain. Sophisticated new database software is giving the Internet industry an unprecedented ability to collect and analyze personal data without our knowledge. Alexa software, for instance, now used on Amazon.com, monitors which sites consumers visit while browsing the Net and stores data about the kinds of items that they search for or purchase. Alexa programs also can pass along personal information including names, postal addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. Maybe it’s an old-fashioned ethic, but shouldn’t we at least be asked whether we are willing to subject ourselves to such close scrutiny while merely shopping for a good book?
Jason Catlett, president of an anti-junk mail company, gave Lesley Stahl a perfect analogy on "60 Minutes" to appreciate the degree of scrutiny most Internet users unknowingly open themselves up to when going online: "Suppose every time you walked around the mall, somebody put a barcode on your shoulder...and scanned your shoulder...and went to a database, saying, ‘Ah, yes, that’s Lesley who visited the shop next door 15 minutes ago.’"
It’s not only Net companies that are keeping a close eye on our activities. Roughly 27,000 supermarkets in the United States provide cards that offer discounts or other promotions to customers who sign up; those customers’ personal information can then be linked to records of what they buy. Food markets typically use the data to get a better grasp on what’s selling and when to offer special promotions. But imagine a future when insurance companies could check shopping logs to determine their client’s eating habits.
In the not so distant past, banks wouldn’t even have considered exploiting the sensitive information in their customer databases. But in a desperate gambit to survive in a competitive financial market, banks now are slicing and dicing their data to profile customers by wealth, lifestyle events (births, deaths, inheritances), and personal habits. A sudden spike in an account balance, for example, might alert the bank to a pay raise that will make the customer open to buying a new home. Sudden declines might indicate a job loss, and the bank may be wary of extending a credit line.
ALL A BIT Orwellian, you say? No worries, advises Ray Everett Church, the "chief privacy officer" of AllAdvantage. com, which pays Web surfers for the right to monitor their online behavior and target advertising accordingly. AllAdvantage promises to safeguard the identity of its members, while still getting them better shopping deals. "We’re not Big Brother, we’re your big brother," says Everett Church absent the least bit of irony.
What privacy means leads to a wild diversity of interpretations in an information society. But at a minimal level, it should include the right of individuals to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others. In this sense, privacy does not imply information quarantine, but personal choice.
Privacy advocates thus far have failed to get the U.S. government to establish a code of fair information practices, which include an individual’s right to get access to personal information held by others and would require a person’s consent before such information could be disclosed to others. Direct marketing firms that make money buying, selling, and developing business strategies across huge databases of personal information have lobbied hard against stricter government regulation.
Ironically, the best privacy protection may arise from the market itself. Several new Internet companies are offering Web users technology to have full control over their personal information. Zero-Knowledge, for instance, offers an online privacy tool that enables Web users to hide their IP address and their browsing activity. Lumeria.com is set to launch a similar product that its founder, Fred Hill, says will enable "identity commerce," shopping while keeping your identity opaque to merchants and advertisers. The ability to make transactions online without sacrificing privacy represents a significant power shift between consumer and marketer.
The pugnacious CEO of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealey, advises us "to get over" our demands for privacy. Hey, Scott, the fight has only just begun.
DAVID BATSTONE is executive editor of Sojourners.