Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Who's minding the store (of private data you gave up)?

Today's USA Today has an OP/ED on privacy and the little bits of data that consumers are willing to give up in exchange for a bit of convenience or a discount. There aren't any great revelations in the article, but it is an example of how the call for greater regulation is moving front and centre in the mainstream media:

USATODAY.com - Who's minding the store (of private data you gave up)?

"Several recent developments have chipped away at privacy:

• Invisible surveillance. Information is increasingly collected without the knowledge, much less permission, of those giving it up. "Black boxes" the size of cigarette packs have been installed in 40 million vehicles to monitor speed, seat-belt use and more. Only five states require that car buyers be informed of its presence. From Philadelphia to Chicago to Los Angeles, surveillance cameras are on silent watch in public spaces. London's recent success in capturing photos of terrorists has fed the calls for more.

• Collection mania. Data mining is big business. Companies vacuum up data from public and private sources, aggregate it, analyze it and sell it to buyers ranging from private companies to the CIA. Any one item is not very invasive, but when birth certificates, credit histories, real estate deeds, military records and insurance claims are pulled together, they paint intimate pictures. If errors exist, the public has no way to know or demand fixes.

• Data thefts. In recent months, breaches involving banks, credit card processors, colleges and the biggest of the data brokers, ChoicePoint, have left millions of people vulnerable to identity theft. Legislators and the companies themselves have done little to correct the problem.

• Government mischief. Collection of information by the government is often fraught with errors and overreaching. The Transportation Security Administration's "no-fly" list has repeatedly ensnared innocent travelers. The agency was rapped again Friday for violating privacy while trying to create another program to screen fliers.

It's easy to sympathize with the goals of much of this data collection, whether safer driving or terrorism prevention. But it might be possible to reach those goals less invasively.

Congress and state lawmakers need to establish basic protections for all information. Businesses need to realize they can profit more by viewing consumers as partners, not as pesky subjects for dossiers. Individuals will need ways to monitor data about themselves.

Fighting technology is no answer. It won't work. Nor is surrendering to Big Brother. A palatable compromise should involve an active government, private ingenuity and an involved public. Perhaps that's what's finally taking off in Orlando."

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