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What Information About Us Can We Keep Private?
One of the new industries growing out of computer technology is "Data Mining": As more and more organizations collect information about each of us, there are more and more companies that make a business of combining all that information to form an alarmingly comprehensive profile of each person. Their profile of you can include your income, purchasing habits, work history, legal history, medical history and more. The data miners in turn sell your profile to other companies so that they can target you for specific products. They may also decide whether to reject you for health insurance or employment.
Who collects and sells information to the data miners? Some state motor vehicle bureaus, supermarkets (think about those little cards that entitle you to discounts on selected items), and manufacturers of everything from major appliances to small gadgets (do you fill out registration cards that ask for personal information such as your family income, the number of children you have, and what magazines you subscribe to?).
My Internet service provider recently encouraged me to upgrade to the latest version of their free software. When I did so, I found that the new software was tracking my online activities (what sites I visit, what I buy, etc..). Although I do nothing that would embarrass me, I object to being monitored, so I re-installed the previous version of the software.
We cannot prevent all snooping into our lives, but we can at least reduce it: First of all, you do not have to send in a registration card to make a product warranty valid, you have only to save the sales receipt. Furthermore, much of the information asked for on forms we do have to fill out, is not legitimately required for the forms' purposes, and in many cases we have the right to leave it out: On a form that I filled out recently to volunteer as a reading teacher, I was asked for my driver's license number and my automobile insurance policy identification. I refused to provide that information. (I was gladly accepted nonetheless.)
And happily, under a new law you can direct that a bank or other commercial organization not share your data with third parties.
As we depend more and more on the convenience and other benefits provided by information technology , it becomes increasingly difficult to keep our personal information to ourselves. Complete privacy is out of the question these days except for those who live in remote, undeveloped areas, but the rest of us can still fend off the most flagrant abuses.
W. A. Shapiro
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