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.’"