Skip to comments.Privacy experts fear `data mining'
Posted on 01/02/2004 2:41:42 PM PST by Holly_P
Edward Socorro had a good thing going as a sales manager with Hilton Hotels Corp. But not long after he started, a company hired by Hilton to do background checks on new employees reported that Socorro once spent six months in jail.
In reality, Socorro was no ex-con. He protested that the background check was wrong. But still he was fired. And although he later settled a lawsuit against Hilton, the damage was done.
Socorro learned the hard way about an increasing danger in our ever-more-networked society: the reliance of corporations and governments on commercially accessible databases that mine the paper trails of our lives. It figures to be among vital privacy issues garnering wider attention in 2004.
Databases have become remarkably efficient and inexpensive to query. Many employers, schools and even volunteer organizations now trust them in making decisions about whom to take on and whom to avoid.
But these databases are not infallible. They can be misinterpreted or only partially accurate, showing arrests or criminal records that were later wiped clean - just enough to cost someone a job.
Privacy advocates and civil-liberties groups are alarmed. They think some of these background checks could violate federal employment laws and credit-reporting rules that let consumers examine information on file about them.
At the very least, the Internet has made it far easier for anyone to obtain not only someone else's birthdates and Social Security numbers, but also liens, lawsuits, divorces and other personal and potentially embarrassing - but technically public - information.
Such material was once available only to people who bothered to dig through musty courthouse files.
``I consider the issue of public records on the Internet to be one of the most challenging public-policy issues of our time,'' said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
Activists have been sounding alarms for years about the decline of privacy in the digital age - with the public sometimes responding.
Witness attempts by lawmakers in 2003 to stomp out telemarketing and spam, albeit with limited success. Or how spooked citizens recently recirculated e-mails warning that Google can within seconds deliver the names and addresses that coincide with listed phone numbers.
Privacy advocates say far more worrisome intrusions are due as improving technology gives government, advertisers and insurance companies new ways to harvest precise information.
``We are really on the cusp of creating a surveillance society where every action, every utterance - some might say every thought - can be traced,'' said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program.
The next year will bring more debate over radio-frequency identification, or RFID, which lets stores and suppliers track inventory.
Critics fear it could secretly monitor consumers' behavior or whereabouts; retailers say those worries are overblown partly because RFID tags will be disabled at checkout counters.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government, acting on post-Sept. 11 mandates, will be monitoring travel more closely.
The government plans to begin scanning and storing foreign visitors' facial images and fingerprints in 2004. It also is developing ``CAPPS II,'' the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System.
CAPPS II is expected to check travelers' credit reports, consumer transactions and other personal data.
While a privacy outcry led Congress to scale back the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness data-mining program this year, several states are cooperating on a similar database called Matrix, maintained by a private Florida company.
Critics of such systems say they enable an unprecedented amount of snooping on law-abiding citizens, but do little to actually enhance security.
Other activists worry that detailed databases are ripe material for identity thieves or even terrorists.
Vance Packard, 'The Naked Society', 1964: "American know-how is bringing the nightmare world of George Orwell's '1984' in well ahead of schedule, and with improvements which that unsafe, unemployable, poor-credit-risk writing man never dreamed of."
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It is in the breaking news sidebar!
Telemarketers and bulk-mailers fought legislative attempts to restrict the sale of private information.
The cat's out of the bag now since so many companies now own their copies of this data. It is one reason that identity theft is so common.
And yet we claim we can't track and deport illegals or control the integrity of our elections. BS. It is selectiive use of data and technology, that's all.
PRIVACY is the most important but least understood concept directly related to personal liberty. Americans think they are entitled to it, then absolve its defense as an inconvenience, or exchange it for security.